Holy Week highlights, part 3: Easter Vigil

Stations of the Cross

On Holy Saturday, my friend Michelle and I visit a Catholic retreat center to walk through the stations of the cross. We study each scene in silence, take turns saying a prayer of reflection about each station, and progress to the next one.

I fight my urge to rush through them, trying to be like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening, trying not to be like Martha, trying to remember that “only one thing is needed,” and giving Jesus all the tasks on my to-do list (Vacuum! Bake two cakes! Put out plates and silverware! Clean the bathroom! CALM DOWN and relax!) before my company comes for the Easter Vigil Feast I am hosting.

As we go through the last few stations, I feel a measure of peace. This is where I’m supposed to be right now. This is more important.

I thank Michelle for coming with me, lingering at each station and making me go more slowly than I would have otherwise. I needed someone to restrain my Martha tendencies and help me to be Mary for a while. “That’s why we make such a good pair,” she says, smiling.

* * *

IMG_0044Back at home and refreshed, Michelle and I finish up preparations and apply the final touches, arranging flowers, lighting candles, setting up enough chairs for everyone. My inspiration for this feast comes from N.T. Wright:

“[Easter] ought to be an eight-day festival with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air?”

People begin to arrive, and a scene of what my mother calls “happy chaos” ensues. My dining room table brims with potluck dishes, my living room is crammed with satisfied, jovial guests, and my kitchen sink is overflowing with dirty dishes. (Note to self for next year: never attempt to host a feast for 20+ guests with only 15 dinner plates, 10 water glasses, and no plastic ware.)

Although things become a bit hectic for me, everyone–including me–is having a good time. We savor celebratory foods: the lamb ragu I made, the unique variety of side dishes everyone contributed, the port and chardonnay. The kids have fun tricking a few adults by pouring ginger ale into champagne glasses. We all laugh and make merry.

After a long period of Lenten preparation, we break forth in glorious celebration of the Lord Jesus who “passed over from death to life and who allows us to “share in his victory over death.” (Book of Common Prayer, the Great Vigil of Easter)

* * *

lightMy guests and I go over to the Easter Vigil service at church, watching the priest light the Paschal Candle and process with it inside the darkened sanctuary.

Sanctify this new fire, and grant that in this Paschal feast we may so burn with heavenly desires, that with pure minds we may attain to the festival of everlasting light, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The priest’s song proclaiming the light of Christ seems small yet strong in that cavern, like the candlelight. From this single flame, the acolytes light each of our candles. I gaze at the bright star in my hand, peeking back over my shoulder to see hundreds of such stars born from one light, hundreds of faces illumined and caressed by its glow.

The priest chants:

This is the night when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.

This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and are restored to grace and holiness of life.

This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave.

We listen to the story of God’s salvation throughout history–creation and the promise of restoration, the flood and the covenant of the rainbow, the deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the gifts of living water for the thirsty and new hearts for the hardened. We renew our baptismal vows, remembering our burial with Christ in baptism and our resurrection with him in new life.

The lights come on in the sanctuary, revealing a sunburst of Easter lilies all around the altar. We proclaim for the first time, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” We celebrate the first Eucharist of the Easter season, savoring the bread and wine.

The service ends after we sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” but a festive spirit lingers among the congregation as we greet each other and revel, with almost giddy delight, in the rich truths we have just professed. We have a full fifty days to continue celebrating them, in this holiest of seasons.

Chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and has taken away the sin of the world. By his death he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us everlasting life.

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