Ancient liturgy deepens faith and builds community
by Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today
Originally published March/April 2020
The sun was setting as cars pulled into the church parking lot. I walked toward the glowing embers that were being coaxed into flames in a rusty fire pit outside the church doors. It was a welcome sight on a chilly spring night.
As much as I wanted to stay close to the fire’s warmth, as more people gathered, I edged to the back of the circle that was forming. I felt awkward and shy. I was not a member of the church. I was a stranger to them as they were to me. But the biggest “stranger” of all was the worship service itself at this Episcopal church. I was a Presbyterian at a Paschal Vigil, and I had no idea what to expect.
The Paschal Vigil, also known as the Easter Vigil or the Great Vigil of Easter, is an ancient liturgy celebrated on the night before Easter Sunday. Initially, it started in the middle of the night, ending with the break of dawn on Sunday. It was also a service in the early church when new Christians were welcomed into the faith through the waters of baptism followed by the celebration of the Eucharist.
And for centuries to come, the vigil has been a time for Christians to celebrate the Resurrection with the rising of a new day, when the darkness of night fills with the light of hope.
I stood on the outer edge of the circle, watching the priest light the Christ candle from the flames that were dancing in the breeze. From that light, the candles we held were lit. The priest sang words of praise, and after their Lenten break, the “Alleluias” returned and were sung. They never sounded so beautiful as they did that night in the dark, cold air. I found myself being drawn into the mystery of the Saturday before Easter that I had never known, until I became an adult, was called “Holy Saturday.”
When I was growing up, the Saturday before Easter was anything but holy. It was a day to dye Easter eggs and make last-minute trips to the store for the holiday meal we would have after Easter Sunday worship.
Yet even as a child I wondered what happened in between Good Friday’s crucifixion and Easter morning’s shouts of “He is risen!” What was this space Saturday was offering to the world? A space that was inviting us to ponder death and grieve losses — to be comfortable sitting with the uncomfortable — all with the knowledge that tomorrow joy would return, as promised.
The Easter Vigil was answering my childhood questions. Saturday was a holy space where I needed to be reminded of the depths of God’s love that was shown on the cross. I needed to be on the journey from dark to light with others. I needed to remember that the God of Creation is always redeeming us, washing us anew in the waters of baptism, showering us with light, and inviting us to sit at the table and break bread together.
The vigil moved from outdoors to inside the church. As the front doors opened, I noticed that it was completely dark inside. I was also hit with the overwhelming smell of Easter lilies and hyacinths. I inhaled deeply. I thought about the dank tomb where Jesus’ body lay and wondered if there was also the scent of hope rather than the stench of death. I wondered, too, about the times in my dank tomb, no matter what situation brought me there, when I had forgotten to smell the roses; that is, awaken my senses to the new life around me.
As the service progressed to another room and the lights slowly came on, becoming brighter with each song, prayer and reading, I discovered I was no longer a stranger in the crowd. And this strange service known as the Easter Vigil became my new best friend, one that has deepened for me what it means to live out the promise of the Resurrection.
As a minister in the PC(USA), I have always wanted to hold an Easter Vigil. I admit, though, it has been a hard sale. It has been my experience that it is difficult to get people to return after Palm Sunday for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I have heard the comments from many a worship committee that attending church two nights in a row is asking a lot of people, and oftentimes I would have to condense the liturgy of the Last Supper and Jesus’ last words from the cross into one service.
Would I, could I, dare ask for a third night of worship for an Easter Vigil?
Three days of worship
The Rev. Dr. David B. Batchelder, formerly of West Plano Presbyterian Church in Plano, Texas, has dared during Holy Week to ask his congregation to make the commitment to not only experience an Easter Vigil, but to participate in an ancient liturgy known as the “Triduum.”
Triduum, Latin for the Great Three Days, celebrates the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising spread out over three days beginning at sundown on Maundy Thursday. The liturgy continues through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, concluding at sundown at the end of Easter day.
“It may seem that I’ve gotten my math wrong in adding up the days. Not so,” Batchelder said, explaining that Triduum is calculated according to the Genesis Creation story: “and there was evening and there was morning.”
“Liturgical time follows the Jewish calculation of the 24-hour day moving from sunset to sunset rather than midnight to midnight,” he said.
For Batchelder, Triduum has been an important spiritual practice for him, but he realizes it is not something Presbyterians are accustomed to and it takes easing into and perhaps adapting the liturgy to work with where a congregation is.
“To bring the liturgy of the Great Three Days to Presbyterian congregations not familiar with this tradition involves some adaptation,” Batchelder said, noting that most congregations will have a Maundy Thursday service of some kind, focusing on Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Some congregations, too, will have their own version of a Good Friday service, perhaps an ecumenical gathering to hear the last words of Jesus spoken from the cross or to experience a Tenebrae service, in which candles are extinguished as the service progresses.
“But rare is the Presbyterian congregation that has an after-sundown Saturday Easter (Paschal) Vigil,” Batchelder said.
Over the years, Batchelder has incorporated more sensory and tactile elements to the Holy Week services, to bring the ancient liturgy to life and deepen the meaning of the Easter message.
Elements such as foot washing and stripping the chancel, as they are offered in the 2018 Book of Common Worship, have been introduced to his congregation with much success.
For many years, Deb Vermie, a member of West Plano Presbyterian Church, “resisted” participating in the foot washing. Last year, though, she was surprised by the reading she heard from John 13, instructing “me to do as Jesus did.”
“I felt moved to action by the Spirit as I removed my shoes and took a towel in my hands,” Vermie said.
Vermie’s response is exactly what Batchelder hopes will happen to worshipers participating in Triduum.
“The three days of Triduum intend to engage worshipers as active participants in the meaning of Christ’s self-giving. In Triduum, we do not watch something performed by others, like a Last Supper tableau or readings at a Tenebrae. We participate in the mystery,” he said.
That participation has also opened the doors to West Plano Presbyterian’s Holy Week worship being more intergenerational.
“The Easter Vigil service with the location changes inside and outside the church and moving from room to room keep your senses alert,” said Eric Sughrue, a parent of three young girls. “The mixture of participation and silence allows space for everyone, especially the children, to learn and have reverence for this special service and time of year.”
Sughrue’s 8-year-old daughter, Lucy, especially likes participating in Maundy Thursday worship.
“Washing other people’s feet makes me happy,” she said.
Still, Triduum is not a “convenient” liturgy, Batchelder says.
“It requires commitment from a congregation — a commitment to attend worship on consecutive nights, with each night’s service lasting more than an hour,” he said.
And that can be difficult.
“Sometimes the Triduum coincides with spring break, when the kids are out of school. Other times it falls on the sacred weekend of NCAA basketball’s Final Four. And always, there are many things for families to do getting ready for hosting family and friends on a weekend that also functions as a cultural holiday,” Batchelder said.
In spite of obstacles, Batchelder has found in his more than 30 years of celebrating Triduum liturgy that “I, and the people I serve, need what Triduum offers.”
“We need to be brought from death to life again and again. We need to be renewed in the meaning of our baptisms, so that we can wisely and courageously fulfill our calling in a broken and fearful world,” he said, adding, “Triduum is central to our ongoing formation in faith. And we should observe it and be grateful that each year the Lenten wilderness journey leading to the Easter fire comes just in time in our lives.”
For help in planning Triduum worship or holding an Easter Vigil, go here.
A close-up look at the Easter Vigil
The Easter Vigil is a worship service that features four parts. Here’s a look at how West Plano Presbyterian Church celebrates the vigil.
The Liturgy of Light
The Easter Vigil begins with the Liturgy of Light. Inside, the church is shrouded in darkness as a fire is lit outside.
At West Plano Presbyterian, “we begin with a mini-bonfire at the far edge of our parking lot,” says the Rev. Dr. David B. Batchelder. In his previous congregation, the Easter Vigil fire was lit in the church cemetery.
The Easter Proclamation
From the fire, Batchelder lights the Paschal candle and then the individual candles held by the worshipers. The “Exultet” is sung — “exultet” is the opening word in Latin of “The Easter Proclamation,” which is an ancient hymn that is said to have been used in the Roman Catholic Easter liturgy from between the fifth and seventh centuries.
“We then begin walking the outside property, stopping at various places for Scripture readings that tell of the stories of God’s saving deeds,” Batchelder said.
The Liturgy of the Word
Eventually, the vigil moves inside the church for more Scripture storytelling, often acted out by children and youth, before arriving in the church library.
“It’s a large room well-suited for the gospel reading, a brief sermon and the ‘Litany of the Saints,’ that remembrance of who we belong to and who belongs to us as the great company of all united in Christ,” Batchelder said.
The Sacrament of Baptism
From there, the West Plano congregation follows the Paschal candle and arrives at the font to baptize those who are ready to enter the faith, and to celebrate the reaffirmation of baptism for all attending.
The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
“By now in the service we are famished, and it is time for the holy meal, the Eucharist,” Batchelder said.
“This is the great celebration.” West Plano Presbyterian’s bread is often a 7-pound loaf specially prepared by a local bakery, Batchelder says.
“For the fruit of the vine, we have sometimes popped champagne. Other times it has been a fine cabernet sauvignon,” he added.
West Plano Presbyterian worshipers share their experience.
“The Saturday Easter Vigil is deeply meaningful for me as darkness, fire, light, water, Scripture and music take me on a journey that retells the story of my faith.” — Nancy Batchelder, 65
“I’ve come to consider attending the Paschal Vigil an essential part of my Easter celebration. It is absolutely wonderful — long, yes, but meaningful and even fun.” — Linda Robinson, 50-ish
“The Easter Vigil provides a multigenerational, multisensory experience of excitement building upon our faith journey from Genesis’ Creation story culminating in the Eucharist celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Awesome bread!” — Joyce Jones, mid-60s
“For me, the three days of Triduum really are one complete act in three stages. In the Maundy Thursday liturgy, I see the model of leadership played out in the bodily service of washing feet. On Good Friday, we are astounded by the love that suffered the depths of pain, but also gives the last ounce of blood for forgiveness. All culminates in the family reunion with stories, songs and an extravagant Resurrection feast of celebration! Even recovering from surgery, I could not miss these three days.” — Priscilla Kimery, mid-70s
“Participating in the rituals, remembering our baptism and hearing the voices of the youngest children are God moments for me. The lavish symbols, including the enormous loaf we consume at the vigil, take my breath away.” — Becki Williams, early 70s
“Acting out the stories in the Bible makes us part of the story.” — Erik Barnes, 11
“During my baptism at the vigil I felt safe, surrounded by friends and family.” — Sophia Barnes, 10
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