A centuries-old Christian tradition and its powerful celebration of baptism are making a slow but steady comeback in the ELCA. Pastors across the church are infusing their congregations with the drama and joy of the Easter Vigil.
The culmination of the Three Days, which begins with Maundy Thursday, the vigil is held between sunset on Easter Saturday and sunrise on Easter morning.
Worshiping at the lengthy vigil—often two hours or more—is akin to attending an opera, said Paul Hoffman, a former pastor of Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church, Seattle, who now writes and teaches in retirement. “This is a drama that’s unfolding before you, that you’re going to participate in over the course of the evening.”
Common throughout Christianity during medieval times, the Easter Vigil faded from practice until a revival began in the 1960s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Hoffman said.
Bryon Hansen, a pastor of Phinney Ridge, said the congregation’s emphasis on baptism at Easter—although the sacrament also happens at other times—stretches back roughly two decades.
At Phinney Ridge, which offers immersion (in a livestock trough) as a baptismal option, the vigil is the culmination of a process for adult catechumens that the congregation refers to as “the Way.” Also joining in the Way are adults wishing to affirm their baptism and eighth graders going through confirmation.
“Lent is that time to prepare for baptism and affirmation, and we get very pointed about asking participants to discern what they need to renounce in order to make way for the new gift that God is giving them,” Hansen said.
People who have witnessed baptism by immersion at Phinney Ridge “want to do it,” Hansen said, and they want it for their children as well.
“It’s the power of symbols,” he added. “To really drop people in the water, that speaks volumes. And our lavish use of symbols includes more than just water—also a lavish use of oil when they’re anointed, symbolizing the way God touches them in real ways. No one’s on a lonely journey; it’s a journey in community, new adventures in following Jesus.”
“The vigil is the high point of the year for our congregation. It really is the center of our worship life together.”
“The center of our worship life”
Roughly 300 people attended last year’s vigil at Phinney Ridge, and a similarly large throng turned out for the 2019 vigil at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago. Like Phinney Ridge, Holy Trinity makes do with a livestock tank that detracts little from the power of the immersion experience.
“It’s very moving for our congregation since most of us Lutherans don’t remember our baptism,” said Craig Mueller, a pastor of Holy Trinity. “To have adult baptisms at our vigil, with the strong symbolism and strong bodily experience of going underwater, is very powerful.”
“The vigil is the high point of the year for our congregation,” added Mueller, noting that a “festive champagne reception” follows worship. “It really is the center of our worship life together. We design it for families, and people treasure it.”
University Lutheran Church in Philadelphia has a permanent font, about 5 feet wide and shaped like a cross, with a pump that creates a ripple effect.
“The vigil has been going on for decades here,” said Fritz Fowler, pastor of University. “It starts at 9 and lasts until midnight, then we have a reception afterward in our fellowship hall. It’s a cross-generational worship opportunity and a really meaningful time. I did not grow up in a congregation that had an Easter Vigil, so it was a new thing for me. I learned about it in seminary but not all that is involved with it. Until you actually do it, you can only learn so much.”
There are four services, or parts, to the Easter Vigil liturgy. The vigil begins with an outdoor gathering and the building of a fire to light the paschal (Greek for “passage”) candle, which is carried into a darkened sanctuary representing Jesus’ tomb and then used to light individual candles held by worshipers.
Next come readings from the Old Testament, as many as 12, that recount acts of salvation throughout history, followed by baptism and communion.
“It’s the liturgy of all liturgies,” Hansen said. “It’s part of our DNA here at Phinney Ridge, but to get a congregation to that point takes a long time and a lot of formation.”
Hoffman is encouraged by the vigil’s comeback and looks at it as a gift being brought to congregations as newly ordained rostered ministers go out into the world.
“From the day we’re born until the day we die, God is forming us in our faith, and the vigil is such a powerful formational gift for kids,” he said. “It sounds counterintuitive that kids would look forward to a two-and-a-half-hour service, but they do, because they’re active in it. Those kinds of things really anchor the faith of young people, hopefully for a lifetime.”