Some of your best memories of church services have probably been services that weren’t the normal Sunday morning service. Singing on Christmas Eve (even at the midnight services), getting up while it was still dark for the “sunrise services” in the wee hours of Easter morning, hearing the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as the ashes are applied on Ash Wednesday, listening in the darkness as the psalm is chanted and the altar stripped at the end of Maundy Thursday services—these tend to be very memorable services that aren’t at the normal time of weekly worship.
It gets harder and harder for these special services to compete with our convenience-dominated culture. People don’t want to stay up late, get up early, go out of their way, or otherwise change their schedule, much less do so with sleepy children. So in most (not all) churches, the late night Christmas Eve service is lightly attended if even still offered. Same with Christmas Day. At Easter the “sunrise service” has been moved to a more reasonable hour and is not packed like the later services. And special services for high feast days like Epiphany, Ascension, Reformation and All Saints very often just get moved to the closest Sunday so they can be celebrated without inconveniencing anyone.
So it might come as a surprise to us that for many centuries the most important church service of the year was the Easter Vigil, which, as the name implies, lasted hours and hours through the night and ended with the Easter proclamation and communion at dawn. This was (and is in many places) the service in which all the adult catechumens (converts to Christianity who had been taught the faith over the course of the year) were baptized, received into membership, and took their first communion.
Most places do not really keep vigil through the night but celebrate the service either Saturday night or Easter Sunday very early. This year were are going to have an Easter Vigil service here at St. Paul’s at 8:00 p.m. on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. I encourage you to attend because it is one of those special services that make an impression. No, it won’t go all night. In fact, it will only be the first half of the service, and the 7:00 a.m. Easter service will complete it.
The service begins outside with the lighting of a paschal candle (“Paschal” is from the old word for Passover and in church usage just means “Easter-related” because at Easter we celebrate that we have passed over from death to life) from a small bonfire, which in our case will be in the courtyard. The worshippers light their own candles from the paschal candle and go into the darkened sanctuary, with their candlelight symbolizing faith in God’s promises in a fallen world. Various Old Testament readings and musical responses recount God’s faithfulness through all of human history. We then remember our own baptism and crossing over from dark to light, from death to life in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and hell.
Normally the service goes straight into the Easter proclamation and communion service, but we are going to leave the church in silence and resume Easter morning with the great celebration. Please consider changing up your Easter weekend routine to join us for this very solemn and meaningful service. Most people who do it once find that it quickly becomes one of their favorite services of the year.
When we celebrate the resurrection, we’re declaring victory in a great struggle. Not only does Life defeat Death, but do so in an amazing, come from behind, against all odds triumph. In the words of a thousand-year-old hymn in our hymnal (#459-460) called Victimae Paschali:
Christians, to the Paschal Victim
Offer your thankful praises!
The Lamb the sheep has ransomed:
Christ, who only is sinless,
Reconciling sinners to the Father.
Death and Life have contended
In that combat stupendous:
The Prince of Life, who died,
The idea is that not only does Life defeat Death forever, but He does so by dying. It is precisely when Death thinks it has won that it loses because of the miracle of the Resurrection. More importantly, the hymn makes clear that Jesus’ victory is our victory. We are sinners, He is sinless, but because He shared in our humanity, like a Shepherd who is also a Lamb, we receive the forgiveness that reconciles us to God the Father. This means that the life we live and the news we bring to the dying world is good, one might even say impossibly good, except that it is true.
We in the Church celebrate what has been called a “culture of life.” We see all people as having an inherent dignity, we protect all people, care for all people, even as we utterly reject the sin, death, and hell that Christ defeated. We never think of death as simply a natural part of life but as an enemy that has been defeated in Christ. Same with sin, what the Bible calls the “work of darkness” or the “fruit of the sinful nature.” We don’t tolerate sin, celebrate it, or other-wise treat it as okay, but instead treat it as a defeated enemy in Christ wherever we find it, whether in ourselves or others. We know it is destroyed by the word of victory/forgiveness we bear.
Our hope is not in this world, in finding a fountain of youth somewhere to defeat death or a political program to defeat the human condition, or a therapy to do away with sin. Our hope is in the promise of forgiveness and eternal life precisely when it most seems like sin and death have the upper hand. So let the Gospel this Easter season comfort you, encourage you, and empower you to live out your faith without fear. Death and Life have contended. The war is over.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana