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Fire, Water, and a Risen Savior
From the early centuries of the church, the Easter Vigil has been a vivid way of celebrating Christ's resurrection and our own redemption.
After the long darkness of Lent, the brief exultation of Palm Sunday, and the sorrow of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Easter morning dawns. While the secular world sleeps, or reads its New York Times, or hands out bunnies, eggs, and jelly beans to its eager children, the Christian community gathers around a different set of symbols: lilies, trumpets, spring clothes, Easter cantatas, the "Hallelujah Chorus," darkness, fire, water, oil, bread, wine … Wait—what?
Of all Christian celebrations of the events of Christ's life, our modern Easter traditions have perhaps strayed farthest from the ways the early church marked the day—or rather, the days, for they saw Holy Week, and especially its holiest hours from Thursday night to Sunday morning, as an indivisible unit. The New Testament makes clear that early Christians began to meet on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7,11) to "break bread" and celebrate Jesus' resurrection. But though every Sunday was thus a "little Easter," the early church also drew attention to the events of Jesus' last days through what they called the Pascha (taken from the Hebrew word for Passover, and held at the same time of the year). They read Scripture and celebrated the Eucharist to commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry, Last Supper, betrayal, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 may be a New Testament reference to this festival, and it was certainly being celebrated by the second century, when controversy arose as to whether it should be commemorated on a Sunday or on the date of Passover itself.
Because Paul had described baptism with the imagery of death and resurrection (Romans 6:4-5), the time surrounding Pascha became associated with the baptism of new converts. Tertullian's treatise on baptism (ca. 200) mentions Passover as the most appropriate time for this sacrament. The famous third-century liturgical document The Apostolic Tradition is one of our earliest descriptions of a period of fasting on the Friday and Saturday before Easter, culminating in an all-night vigil on Saturday evening. (In addition to emphasizing a symbolic movement from darkness to light, the vigil took over the idea from Judaism that the religious day begins at sundown.) That night, new Christians were baptized, anointed with oil, and received their first Communion with the community. The inscription on the Lateran baptistery in Rome, which dates from a century or two later, expresses the mood of this celebration: "Sinner, sink beneath this sacred surf that swallows age and spits up youth. Sinner, they know no enmity who are by one font, one Spirit, one faith made one. Sinner, shudder not at sin's kind and number, for those born here are holy."
The Vigil through the centuries
By the fourth century, the celebration of Pascha had expanded both backwards to give us our modern outline of Holy Week, and forward into the "Great Fifty Days" of rejoicing between Easter Day and Pentecost—when, Augustine tells us, "there is no fasting and we pray standing, which is a sign of resurrection." Egeria, a Christian pilgrim who journeyed to Jerusalem, observed that this expansion of the festival developed to accommodate the large number of pilgrims, who could not visit all the holy places at the same time.
The main features of the Easter Vigil service survived unchanged (though elaborated) in the Western church into the Middle Ages. These features included the kindling of "new fire," used to light a Paschal candle to burn throughout the Easter Season; a series of four to twelve readings telling the story of salvation history from the Old Testament (always including the stories of creation and the Exodus) plus Epistle and Gospel readings; the blessing of "new water" and the celebration of baptisms; and (after a great ringing of bells as the congregation sang the Gloria, not to mention a considerable number of alleluias sprinkled throughout the whole service) the Eucharistic meal. The new fire and new water, in particular, were symbolic of both Christ's resurrection and (through baptism) our own.
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