Dear friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.
Every year when I say this ancient prayer that begins the Easter Vigil something stirs deep within me. Part of it, I think, is that this prayer and the liturgy it begins are so ancient, that in them we are joined with Christians throughout time and history in celebrating the wondrous event of the resurrection.
In fact, the Easter Vigil is the oldest known liturgy of the Christian Church, going back to the second century. In those early days of Christianity, this service truly was a vigil. It began shortly after sunset, when darkness had settled in, and continued until sunrise Easter morning.
In those days, the service included 12 long readings from the Old Testament, with a psalm in between each one, in addition to readings from the New Testament. The purpose of all those scripture lessons was, as one historian writes, “to give a panoramic view of the trajectory of salvation history from creation to the resurrection.”
It was also the primary service for baptisms.
And, of course, it was the first Easter proclamation of the resurrection each year, ending the long Lenten fast.
No wonder the Easter Vigil has been called “the most important service of public worship of the liturgical year.”
Today I doubt that even the heartiest among us would relish the thought of an all-night vigil. But although the modern-day vigil may be a condensed version of the original, it still follows the same form and serves the same purpose. And I would say it is still the most important, and most moving worship service of the year.
We still begin in the evening, close to sunset, with the kindling of the fire and the lighting of the new Paschal candle, which will burn throughout the Easter season and at every baptism and funeral for the next year.
We still follow that light of Christ into the darkened church and hear the beautiful words of the Exultet, telling the story of the blessedness of this holy night.
We don’t hear 14 or 15 scripture readings, but we do get a taste of the panoramic scope of God’s saving work in human history, from bringing order out of chaos in creation, moving from oppression to liberation in the Exodus, bringing death to life in the valley of dry bones, and finally conquering death forever with the resurrection of Jesus.
We still proclaim that Lent is over and Christ is risen.
And, I am especially glad that this night we will have baptisms, officially welcoming Cas and Gabe into this community of faith.
Our ideas about baptism have evolved since those early days of the vigil. Then, only adults were baptized, and only after three years of preparation.
In those early days of Christianity, when the followers of Jesus were subject to persecution and sometimes death for their beliefs, the decision to be baptized was not one to be taken lightly. It was a decision for adults alone, not children.
The three years of preparation helped to ensure that the person making the commitment was truly ready, and that the church could be assured that this person coming into the fold was truly dedicated to being a follower of Christ.
Today, at least in this part of the world, Christians do not have to fear persecution and death because of their beliefs. But baptism, whether of adults or children, is still a sacrament that should not be taken lightly.
Of course, when children are baptized it is the adults in their lives who make promises on their behalf. Cas and Gabe are blessed to have adults in their lives – their grandparents and godparents – who take these promises seriously, who will see that they are brought up in the Christian faith and will always know that the community of the church is a place where they are welcomed and lovedl
And so in a few minutes, Cas and Gabe will take their place in the long line of Christians who have been baptized on this most holy night. We will pour water on them, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And we will anoint their foreheads with oil, marking them as Christ’s own forever.
The oil that we use for anointing was blessed by Bishop Wright. The prayer that is said as the oil is blessed is beautiful and I’d like to share it with you tonight.
“Blessed are you, sovereign God, gentle and merciful, who by grace upholds all who hear your call…Send now we pray your Holy Spirit upon this oil and fill it with the power of your resurrection.
“Let those who are anointed with this oil find in it a sign of joy and gladness, and may we see in their lives a glimpse of the risen life you promise to all in Jesus Christ.”
May this be our prayer for Gabe and Cas this evening as we rejoice in the resurrection and in the new life in our midst.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!