From the Archives: THIS IS THE NIGHT! The Great Vigil of Easter

Darlene BergmanFrom the Archives, Liturgical Year

During Lent we will be reposting some excellent articles from our archives aimed at supporting you, the Educator, during this season of reflection, prayer and spiritual renewal. You may find a new idea or two for future Lenten programming, as well. Darlene Bergman’s article originally appeared in our Winter 2007 print issue.

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THIS IS THE NIGHT! The Great Vigil of Easter

This is the night—the heart of the Three Days, the pinnacle of the church year.

“This is the night when all our senses are invited to take in the promise of the risen Christ, the night when sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste are all invited to participate. This is the night for singers, storytellers, the prodigal flinging of water, processions, pageantry and drama, the night for all the generations in a congregation to gather to hear again the promise and proclamation that Christ is risen and that in him we too rise to new life. On this night we celebrate the gifts of word, bath, and meal as the places where we encounter God’s yes for the whole creation.”1

The light. Our congregation began celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter in 1999. Word soon spread that it was a service not to be missed, especially for those with young families. This is the night when we pass by a pillar of fire blazing at the church’s entrance compelling us to enter and become a part of the pilgrim people of God. Gathered in a dimly lit room, waiting with unlit candles and quiet anticipation the story unfolds.

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. …in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:1-5). As these words are read, the assembly watches, hushed and expectant, as the acolyte carries a taper to the fire, lights it, then lights the Christ candle that was dark throughout Lent. The people’s candles are lit and the procession of light begins.

As the people make their way into a dark cavernous sanctuary, they sing, “The light of Christ. Thanks be to God.” The Easter proclamation is sung, “Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Jesus Christ, our King is risen.”

The word. This is the night to retell our “holy history.” Each year, four or five of the appointed texts are read (reading all within a three-year cycle), always beginning with creation and ending with the Resurrection story. Each text has a sung response, an anthem, psalm, or hymn sung by choir, cantor, or congregation. A unison prayer of response follows each section. Below are some examples, but be creative. Get many involved. The possibilities are endless.

The Creation Story. Use the children’s book This is the World That God Made by Martha Streufert Jander.2 Our confirmands created brightly painted canvases as illustrations that later became nursery room decor. The junior choir created sound effects using rhythm instruments. I wrote a congregational response accompanied by Orff instruments for the repeated refrain, “And God Saw That It Was Good!” Or use James Weldon Johnson’s creation story from God’s Trombones3  read dramatically with sound effects on the organ.

Stories of Deliverance. Intersperse One More River as a refrain between verses of the flood or Red Sea story. For the fiery furnace story, create a script from Daniel 3:1-29 by highlighting each person’s lines, or ask youth to create a dramatization with narrator, acting out the story. For the dry bones story, use a chain for sound effects intermittently as the text Ezekiel 37:1-14 is read, followed by the spiritual Dem Bones.

The Call of the Prophets. Isaiah 55. Get a large piece of blue cloth and ask your youth to create movements to the text, or use moving or frozen pictures or abstract dramatic movement techniques. There are wonderful dramatic scripts of many of these Old Testament texts; among them are Drama for Worship4 and Scripture Out Loud!5

The Gospel Account of the Resurrection. Interview one of the disciples, or have Mary recount the events in first person.

This is the night to respond to God’s grace. As the entire assembly gathers round the font, new members, infants and confirmands are welcomed into the community. (Be sure to follow the service with a reception.) The water of life is generously flung on all gathered round as a reminder of the grace that we all know by our own baptisms and the peace is shared.

This is the night when we see the transformation from death into life as the sanctuary is transformed from the bleakness of Christ’s death to new life and hope. As we sing “We Know the Christ is Raised,”6 all are invited to carry in Easter lilies, while the sanctuary lights come up, banners are changed, the cross redraped and we share the feast of victory.

This is the night when Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

(from Winter 2007) Darlene Bergman is director of music and liturgical arts at First Presbyterian Church, Iowa City, Iowa, where ministry includes 15 arts teams including singing, handbell, Orff, strings, and brass choirs, drumming circle, liturgical movement, drama, and arts teams. A music intern program serves as a training ground for future church music ministers. Darlene also serves as the music and liturgy consultant for the Presbytery of East Iowa.

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1Sundays and Seasons, Year A, 2008 (Augsburg Fortress, 2007), p. 147.

2This is the World that God Made, Martha Streufert Jander, (Concordia Publishing House, 1998).

3God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Song, James Weldon Johnson, (The Viking Press, 1927), pp. 17-20.

4Drama for Worship, John and Audra Parker, (Parker Publishing, 1996).

5Scripture Out Loud!, Marianne and Jeffrey Phillips, (Augsburg Fortress, 1999).

6”We Know That Christ is Raised,” Text: John Brownlow Geyer, 1969, Tune: Engelberg, Charles Villiers Stanford, 1904.