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The Great Vigil of Easter


A representation of Jesus clothed in white and surrounded by people.

14th century fresco of the Resurrection from Chora Church, Istanbul.

The Easter Vigil is officially the first service of Easter. In fact, Christian feast days generally begin at sunset on the previous day (best known in the example of Christmas Eve). For this reason, the duration of the Easter Triduum (“three days”) is from the evening of Maundy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. The same principle applies to the Jewish reckoning of liturgical time, in which the sabbath begins at dusk and continues to nightfall of the following day. This is reflected in the priestly “refrain” of the Genesis 1 creation story: “and it was evening, and it was morning, the nth day.”

The Easter Vigil has four movements: (1) the Service of Light, a celebration of the light of Christ at which a new fire is kindled from which the Paschal Candle is lit, (2) the Service of Readings, which includes as many as nine readings from the grand story of salvation of the Old and New Testaments interspersed with psalms and canticles, silence and prayers, (3) the Service of Baptism, the primary annual occasion for baptisms (particularly in the early church) and a time for the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant and (4) the Service of the Eucharist, a joyous feast in the presence of the risen Christ and an anticipation of the eschatological banquet of the realm of God.

The brightest jewel of Christian liturgy

An excerpt from the Companion to the Book of Common Worship (Geneva Press, 2003, 135-136)

The Great Vigil of Easter is the brightest jewel of Christian liturgy traced to early Christian times. It proclaims the universal significance of God’s saving acts in history through four related services held on the same occasion.

  1. Service of Light. The service begins in the darkness of night. In kindling new fire and lighting the paschal candle, we are reminded that Christ came as a light shining in darkness (John 1:5). Through the use of fire, candles, words, movement, and music, the worshiping community becomes the pilgrim people of God following the “pillar of fire” given to us in Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. The paschal candle is used throughout the service as a symbol for Jesus Christ. This candle is carried, leading every procession during the vigil. Christ, the Light of the World, thus provides the unifying thread to the service.
  2. Service of Readings. The second part of the vigil consists of a series of readings from the Old and New Testaments. These readings provide a panoramic view of what God has done for humanity. Beginning with creation, we are reminded of our delivery from bondage in the exodus, of God’s calling us to faithfulness through the cry of the prophets, of God dwelling among us in Jesus Christ, and of Christ’s rising in victory from the tomb. The readings thus retell our “holy history” as God’s children, summarizing the faith into which we are baptized.
  3. Service of Baptism. In the earliest years of the Christian church, baptisms commonly took place at the vigil. So this vigil includes baptism and/or the reaffirmation of baptismal vows. As with the natural symbol of light, water plays a critical role in the vigil. The image of water giving life — nurturing crops, sustaining life, and cleansing our bodies — cannot be missed in this part of the vigil. Nor is the ability of water to inflict death in drowning overlooked. Water brings both life and death. So also there is death and life in baptism, for in baptism we die to sin and are raised to life. Baptism unites believers to Christ’s death and resurrection.
  4. Service of the Eucharist. The vigil climaxes in a joyous celebration of the feast of the people of God. The risen Lord invites all to participate in the new life he brings by sharing the feast that he has prepared. We thus look forward to the great messianic feast of the kingdom of God when the redeemed from every time and place “will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). The vigil thus celebrates what God has done, is doing, and will do.

Lectionary Readings for the Easter Vigil

Read the Revised Common Lectionary Scripture lessons for the Easter Vigil:

An Easter Vigil on death row

Pastor David Phillipy of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Nashville, shares this account. (Here is the order of worship they used, adapted and abbreviated from the Book of Common Prayer.)

As a former prison chaplain, I provide direction for a meaningful presence of ministry from loving members of Trinity Presbyterian Church at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee. This includes a pen pal program, a study group, mentoring an inmate pre and post release with financial support from Trinity in the Prisoner Reentry Program and ministries on death row. In addition seventeen of our members did Christmas caroling on Unit 2 death row in 2010 and at a maximum security unit in 2011.

On death row at Riverbend, some inmates are allowed contact visits and group study and worship experiences in a small visiting gallery. I have brought four concerts from musically talented people from Trinity to death row. One of our members teaches voice at Belmont University and he now teaches voices lessons to four inmates on death row. One of his students expressed a desire to join Trinity and was received into membership at Trinity in a service at Riverbend.

The Great Easter Vigil was held on death row on Saturday, April 7, 2012. Eight inmates attended with six Trinity members present. There was a time of fellowship following the service. One of the inmates who has not been active in religious services at Unit 2 in his twenty years on death row was present. Raised in his early years as Lutheran, by his early teens he was living a troubled life which led to his current imprisonment on a death sentence. He had thrown away his Bible and other religious literature which he had in his cell. However, not to disappoint the prison chaplain, he attended the service and was deeply moved by the experience. He asked to see me on my next visit. At that visit he expressed the desire to become a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church. As the Spirit continues to lead we will move in that direction.

An intergenerational Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil can be a great opportunity to form faith, teach tradition, and build community in your congregation—all while celebrating the good news at the heart of our faith, that Christ is risen from the dead! The Office of Theology and Worship has provided these guidelines for planning an intergenerational Easter Vigil. The document includes step by step instructions for organizing and preparing for the service, along with banner ideas, musical suggestions, ways to present readings, and child-friendly prayers for the Thanksgiving for Light, Thanksgiving Over the Water, and Great Thanksgiving.

Lessons from the Easter Vigil

Read a blog post on preparing for the Easter Vigil from the Office of Theology and Worship.

Resource for the Great Vigil of Easter

“Rejoice (This is the Night)” hymn

This hymn setting of the traditional Easter Proclamation (or Exsultet) may be used in a procession with the paschal candle at the Easter Vigil.


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