When the Episcopalian rector moved in next door and talked about “nearly burning down the church” with the Easter vigil fire, he had my attention. Shortly thereafter I attended my first Easter vigil. I loved it! It began with the big fire outside from which the Christ candle was lit. Then inside the darkly candlelit sanctuary we heard, sang and prayed our way through the Bible recalling salvation history. When we got to Jesus’ resurrection, all the lights were turned on revealing a flower-filled church and worshipers rang bells they brought from home while singing an Easter hymn. That was followed by recalling baptism with water being flung over us all, a short Easter sermon and the Eucharist. After the service there was a fellowship hour with all sorts of Easter treats.
I have since learned that this is both a loved and dreaded (because it can run long) service in many Christian traditions. Seeing the whole service with fresh eyes, it, or parts of it, seem to me to offer several wonderful ways to include children in the celebration of Easter. Realizing that I am the Easter vigil newbie and that many of you have life-long experience with this service, I offer the following ideas and hope you will either correct me or add more ideas.
Fire, candles, bells, water, bread and cup offer lots of sensory input for children. Though sunrise is still probably the best time for children to experience the Easter story, this vigil on Saturday just after dark has advantages. For starters it is not a school day. So, families who might pass on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services, are more able to attend. Neither is it so very early in the morning requiring prying children from sleep. If the service is planned with the presence of children in mind it is a good opportunity to rehearse the whole Easter story with them in a vivid way.
The lectionary readings are rather long and could be pared to the essentials. Some of them could be read from children’s Bible story books. One source hinted at presenting the readings in a variety of formats (dialogs, pantomimes, skits, etc.) rather than a series of straight readings. It would also be possible to create (or have children create in advance) a story pole or banner to process in with each reading slowly collecting a timeline across the front of the sanctuary.
Liturgical tradition dictates 7 specific texts that trace salvation history through the Old Testament. But, I am wondering about some years focusing on telling the story of Jesus from Annunciation through Resurrection instead.
The Paschal candle is in its element at the evening vigil. (Candles simply do not make much of a statement in a sanctuary filled with morning light.) At dusk, a huge Christ candle is lit from the bonfire. Worshipers follow it into the darkened sanctuary and light their individual candles from it. My mother who grew up in the Orthodox Church remembers following the Paschal candle around the outside of the church three times in the dark to recall Jesus’ three days in the tomb before entering the Easter sanctuary. The candle is placed beside the baptismal font. In some countries, worshipers carry light from the Christ candle home to light smaller Christ candles in their homes.
Families display a Christ candle in their home for the entire Easter season. This pillar candle may be set in a bowl with fresh flowers or surrounded by other Easter symbols. The church might provide an Easter devotional book (like the Advent devotional books many provide). Once I have looked at the Easter readings, I’ll post a list of scripture readings that could become a bookmark to be sent home with families on Easter. Or, families may simply light the candle once each day before a meal with one person saying “Christ is risen!” and the rest of the family replying “Christ is risen indeed!”
A simple white pillar candle may serve at home. But families may use a nail to carve a cross in the side of the candle, inscribe the date of the year around the cross, alpha above the cross and omega below it. Some may stick 5 cloves in the cross to recall Christ’s wounds. (I am wondering about saving the Christ candle from the Advent wreath to carve and light during Easter.) Crosses in which these figures are painted in wax are also available commercially.
Though the Paschal candle is the star of the Easter vigil, it is often part of Easter morning worship and can be offered to Easter morning worshipers for worship at home.
Why aren’t there more bells in Easter celebrations?! The Episcopalians brought jingle bells, silver dinner bells, even cow bells to ring constantly as we sang the first Easter hymn. I had the sense some worshipers had searched out the bells for this purpose and rang the same one with relish every year. I even wonder if it would be appropriate to ring the steeple bell, if your church has one, during this hymn.