The Great Vigil of Easter – the Rev. Susan E. Hill


The Rev. Susan E. Hill


The Great Vigil of Easter – March 30, 2013

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Exodus 15:1-6, 11-13, 17-18; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Psalms 42 and 43; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 98:1-4, 6-9; Romans 6:3-11; Luke 24:1-12


Welcome to the Great Vigil of Easter! All of us here tonight, whether you know it or not, are participating in one of the most ancient rituals of Christianity. This service had fallen a bit by the wayside – and many of you may not particularly remember it growing up – but it was recovered in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It’s a good thing too, because as liturgical scholar Marion Hatchett has written, this ancient Vigil is “the keystone about which the rest of the church year is built.”

He continues, “In the Great Vigil of Easter, we celebrate and make present the pivotal events of the Old and New Testament heritage, the Passover of the Hebrews from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, the passover of our Lord Jesus Christ from death, and our own passover from the bondage of sin and death to the glorious liberty of new life in Christ Jesus.”*

That’s a lot to cram into one service – and indeed, in ancient times, the Vigil lasted all night long! We don’t stretch ours out that long, you will be relieved to know (!), but we retain all the core elements of the service – the kindling of the new fire and lighting of the paschal candle, the singing of the Exsultet, the substantial number of readings from Scripture (especially emphasizing God’s saving acts in history), the renewal of baptismal vows, and the culmination of the service in the first Eucharist of Easter.

We begin in the dark, as the rite began in its earliest incarnations. Lighting the new fire may be of Celtic origin, but to me it is archetypal of new beginnings, indeed of the first act of the creation story we just heard – in the midst of darkness and the formless void, let there be light. It is this fire that we use to light the paschal candle that is then carried through the dark sanctuary. The giant candle moving through the darkness evokes a powerful image that we encountered in our reading from the book of Exodus – the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that led the people through the desert and out of bondage in Egypt. Kimberlee, our deacon, sang three times “The light of Christ” as she brought the candle into the sanctuary, emphasizing that the divine light that led the Hebrews is the divine light that still leads us through Christ’s resurrection today.

Then Kimberlee sang the Exsultet, an ancient hymn of praise that sets the tone for the Vigil. It starts by exhorting praise from all the company of heaven, all of the inhabitants of earth, and then the whole church, for the triumph of the resurrected King. There is the feeling of gathering all of God’s creation together, to sing praise in harmony. Then there is an echo of a Eucharistic prayer, and Jesus is depicted as the lamb of the Passover feast, the lamb whose blood allowed the people to be freed from slavery in Egypt. Similarly, through Christ, we are freed from bondage to sin and death and reunited with our Creator, with God.

With that sense of freedom ringing in our ears, we moved into a series of readings, reinforcing what we have enacted and what we have heard so movingly sung. The story from Genesis reminds us that God created everything that is, everything that supports us in our abundant lives, an entire universe living in concord. And whenever we have really gotten ourselves into trouble, God has been there to save us, as we heard in the paradigmatic story of freedom through the Red Sea in the story from Exodus.

And we heard several readings from the prophets Ezekiel and Zephaniah, both of which emphasize God’s continuing creative power that renews us, as well as the universality of God’s saving acts. Ezekiel tells us that God gathers us from all nations, sprinkles water on us to cleanse us, and gives us a new heart and a new spirit. Zephaniah, too, emphasizes that God will gather all God’s people together – and not only will we sing aloud and rejoice and exult with all our hearts, God too will be thrilled – we hear that God will rejoice over us with gladness, and renew us in God’s love.

The Vigil continues with our two most significant sacraments – baptism and Eucharist. Although we celebrate them at other times during the year – several times a year in the case of baptism, and here at St. Michael’s virtually every day in the case of the Eucharist – the rites at the Vigil are the primary ones that then get repeated during the year.

In the days of the early church, baptisms were only performed once a year, at the Easter Vigil. While we do not have a baptism this evening, we will reenact key parts of the rite, renewing our baptismal vows, blessing the water in the font, and then sprinkling the holy water upon God’s people. This initiation rite recapitulates the major themes of the Vigil service – the Passover from slavery to freedom for the Israelites and the passover from death to life of Jesus Christ. Through our baptisms, we too have “passed-over” from bondage to sin and death to freedom and new life. As the prophets proclaimed, we are cleansed and receive a new heart and a new spirit, and God rejoices over us with gladness.

The Vigil service then culminates in the first celebration of the Easter Eucharist. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, at every other Holy Communion service, we are celebrating Easter again. And in the Eucharist, again, we pick up all the themes that we have experienced in the Vigil – praise of God and God’s creation, the coming of light into the world, God’s saving acts in history and the universality of God’s love for us, as well as the reenactment of the passover from bondage to freedom and from death to life.

In contemplating the incredible richness and depth of the Great Vigil service, a particular image kept coming to me this week. It was an image used by our new bishop, Andy Dietsche in a sermon he preached earlier this week. He spoke of moving into his new house on the Cathedral close, and of unpacking some Navajo rugs that had been handed down from his grandparents. And he told us that it was traditional for the weavers of the rugs to include a line in the rug, a single thread of yarn that runs from the center of the design all the way to the edge, a line that breaks the pattern of the rug. It is called the spirit line, and the tradition is that such a line allows the energy and creativity that went into creating the rug to be released, so that the weaver can go on to create more rugs.

Wanting to learn more about spirit lines, I found a story online (what did preachers do before the internet?!). A Navajo woman told the story as part of an oral history project called Voices for the Colorado Plateau, and it goes like this:

“So, my grandson,” my grandmother says, “When you look at a spider web somewhere, in your home or someplace, look closely, and if you don’t see a spider there, you’ll see a line, the direction that the spider departed. That’s why when you make a rug, in one corner of the weave, there should be a line that comes out to the end of the rug, we call the spirit line. When you leave this line, that means that you will leave your mind open to think of new designs. If you don’t leave the line in there, you close the rug, then you’ve enclosed your mind, and you will have a hard time thinking of new designs. New techniques, new designs will be gone. And so this is the reason why the line should be there.”**

Now the Bishop had a different point to his story about his grandparents’ Navajo rugs, but that image of the spirit line really captured me. I have just kept thinking about this thin line that disrupts the pattern. This single thread that at first might go unnoticed, but ultimately changes the whole rug. This pathway that leads from the center of the woven creation to its outer edge and then draws the eye even beyond the border, to endless possibility. The spirit line that opens our minds to freedom and new life.
For us, especially on this night of all nights, the spirit line running through all of creation is Christ. The story of Jesus who is the anointed, the Christ, through whom all was created, including that first ray of light coming into the world, who came among us and lived and died as one of us, and then rose again, calling us to freedom and new life – Jesus Christ is the spirit line.

Christ is the line that disrupts the pattern. He upended the way the world works and threw out conventional wisdom. Jesus, the man from Galilee may have at first gone unnoticed, but by disrupting the patterns that we had built up, his single life ultimately changed the world. Through his human life and death and resurrection, he enacted the whole story of salvation history – from creation, to escape from bondage into freedom, to the universality of God’s mercy, love, and creative and renewing power. He is the thread that runs from the center of creation all the way to its very edge – and beyond.

And Christ is the spirit line that opens us up to new life. By participating through Christ in the rites of baptism and Eucharist, we are part of the spirit line too. We too have the power to break old patterns and buck the world’s conventional wisdom. And like the spirit line, we too can start from the very center of our being, and then reach beyond all creation to all the possibilities and freedom of new life.

I particularly love this image of the spirit line because it emphasizes our own acts of creation, and releasing energy and creativity so that our minds and hearts and souls can have the freedom for even more creative acts. The Genesis story tells us that we were made in the very image of God, of our Creator, and so we too are called to create. God calls us to participate in Creation, to be a partner with God in continuing to create our world.

So as we continue with this ancient Vigil, and as we enter into Eastertide, I invite you to contemplate your own way of co-creating with God in this world. Imagine how the spirit line of Christ, which is also your spirit line, is woven through your life. How it is like the light coming into the darkness. How this single thread disrupts old and dead patterns and habits, and instead draws creative energy out from the core of our being and directs it out beyond the confines of our current world and into a realm of possibilities and hope. How this spirit line leads us, as with all of God’s beloved people, to passover from bondage into freedom and from death into whole new life.

Where is the spirit line of Christ, where is your own spirit line leading you?

*Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 242-3.