On Preparing to Vigil Alone

Next Saturday will be only the second time in 17 years that I have not attended the Great Vigil of Easter. It's pretty much my favorite thing that happens all year.

This is despite the fact that I've only actually been a member of a congregation that celebrates the Great Vigil for one out of those 17 years. I am an ecclesiological sojourner each year when it comes to the Church's Great Feast of All Feasts, having to find a congregation other than the one with whom I worship and fellowship on a week-in, week-out basis that will welcome me as a guest to the grand party. I continue the celebration the next morning with my own people, and I delight that I can do both, but there is always a bifurcated character to my Easter celebration.

For me, the Great Vigil has always been about inaugurated eschatology -- the declaration that the Kingdom has Come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, even as it is not yet fully realized in a broken world and an imperfect church.

I fell in love with the Vigil at the same time in my life that I was first truly experiencing the pain of shattered relationships -- coming to know first-hand how people can break your heart, how even self-consciously Christian communities can let you down, how my own sinfulness and frailty makes the call to live at peace with all, "as far as it depends on you," something that can sometimes only be fulfilled through distance. The very churches in which I first discovered the beauty of the Vigil were in fact churches I left feeling wounded and inadequately supported at a time in my life when I was in deep pain.

My experience of the Vigil, every year since, has been marked by the ongoing division of Christ's church. We are not yet One, as he prayed we would be. One year I unwittingly joined a congregation on what turned out to be their final time of worship together before they went their separate ways in a painful split. Another, I worshipped with a congregation that had made that hard decision not to host a joint, ecumenical Vigil with beloved brothers and sisters in Christ because they had realized that their theological and pastoral differences were too significant to create a reconciled service that could accommodate everyone's convictions. Multiple times over I have sat in the service alongside people listening to the homily in tense dismay as they heard, alongside the declaration of the Easter Gospel, teachings they believed to be profound distortions of that very Gospel, causing them to wrestle with their own consciences over whether they could faithfully stay in this congregation or if they must withdraw.

One of the things I love about having attended the Vigil in so many different churches over the years is the assurance that this same Great Story is being proclaimed around the world and by all manner of Christians. Whatever our differences in theology or worship style or local custom, Easter is when Christians announce to the world the essence of our faith: that Jesus is Risen, the Lord is Risen Indeed. But the very fact that I have attended the Vigil in so many different churches is also a testimony to our division -- there is never a single, unified church of Christ in any of the cities in which I lived. There are, to be sure, good reasons for our divisions, and God is using us as his emissaries in the world even with and through our division, yet this is itself a sign that the Kingdom has not yet fully been realized.

I think one of the reasons I am such a devotee of the Vigil is that it declares that Easter is greater and more final than all our divisions and failings. We stream out of the church into darkness, into a world that does not yet know that it has already been redeemed. We sing a broken Alleluia. We announce that light has come into the world, and is coming, and darkness cannot stop it. We live by faith and not by sight.

In a world shattered by sickness, where we are tempted to rage against those who seem to be making the situation worse, where we can be captivated by fear for ourselves and those we love, I need more than ever the reminder that Easter will have the final word, even if Not Yet. My Risen Lord has conquered death; where, oh grave, is your victory?

So I will celebrate a broken Vigil in a broken world this Easter. It is not right to do it alone, but the message we proclaim is more powerful than all that is not right in the world. So I will light a fire, and I will read the Word, and I will ring a bell, and I will declare that Christ is Risen! And I will observe an act of Spiritual Communion in lieu of the first Eucharist of Easter, which seems likely to be "absolutely impossible" this year. Spiritual Communion is an act of longing for the church as it should, and ultimately will, be -- which is, in fact, what all of these Easter Vigil celebrations that I have so loved over the years have also been.

In this world we will have trouble. But take heart! Christ has overcome the world.


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