By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – “This is the night,” read the words of the ancient prayer, “when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.”
These lines are part of the Exsultet, the dramatic prayer recited by Christians in the Western, liturgical traditions during the Easter Vigil.
As the sun goes down across Northeast Mississippi tonight, Catholics, along with Episcopalians as well as some Lutherans and Presbyterians and a few United Methodists will gather outside their churches and kindle bonfires to begin the liturgy.
The vigil is a service rooted in tradition and filled with strong, emotive symbolism. For many Christians it’s the most powerful service of the year.
“In its most ancient forms, the vigil began at sunset and continued throughout the entire night,” said the Rev. Richard Smith, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Corinth.
The bonfire – or in some cases, smaller kindled fires – represent Christ, the light of the world, conquering sin and darkness.
“The symbolism here is glorious. We’re going from death to new life,” said the Rev. Jan Oller, assistant rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford.
From the flame the minister lights the large Easter candle, which will be lit again whenever someone is baptized throughout the year.
“The theme of dying and rising with Christ permeates the service,” said Oller.
The faithful then follow the candle into the dark church, lighting their own candles from it, spreading light throughout the sanctuary.
“We accept the light and grace of Christ into our lives and shine forth to one another,” said Sister Pat Hinton, a Franciscan nun and pastoral associate at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Houston.
Then comes the Exsultet, the beautiful, haunting prayer that tells the story of salvation history.
“ The phrase ‘This is the night,’ is repeated four times, as a kind of Christian answer to the four questions Jewish children are asked during the Passover Seder,” said the Rev. Rick Brooks, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo. This year, following an ancient custom, Brooks will chant the Exsultet. At Immaculate Heart, four voices will sing the prayer in English and Spanish.
Many churches then resurrect the glorious “Alleluia,” the hymn of praise they laid aside during the penitential days of Lent.
The lights come up, flowers are placed around the church and the service takes on a joyful character.
“The tension has been building all during Holy Week, and now we’ve come out of the darkness and into the light of Christ’s victory,” said the Rev. Paul Stephens, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo.
“We experience this as a transforming event,” Stephens said. “All of our energy, which has been so focused on the passion, is let loose, made possible by the Lord’s resurrection.”
A litany of biblical readings trace God’s care for humankind, beginning with the creation account in Genesis and continuing with the Exodus narrative and God’s admonitions through the prophets.
Many churches have a blessing of water, a reminder of the chaos that reigned before God formed the world as well as the cleansing, regener0ative power of baptism.
The minister then sprinkles the congregation with water, a symbolic gesture that reminds the faithful of their own baptism. Since the earliest days of the church, many Christians believe, the vigil was the time for bringing in new members. Most Catholic and Episcopal churches still initiate new, adult members during the vigil.
“I feel I”m entering a church that values tradition. I’m not concerned that the Catholic Church is going to change on me,” said James Laney, who at age 70, after having been baptized in another tradition will receive the Sacraments of Confirmation and First Communion tonight at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo. The importance given to history and to the sacramental life in the Catholic faith, Laney said, are important reasons why he’s chosen to become a member.
The vigil is considered a continuous worship experience with Easter morning, and according to Smith of St. James in Corinth the early Christians lit the Paschal fire and initiated new members just before dawn.
After the rite of initiation, the community celebrates communion.
It’s rather easy, Smith said, because of the vigil’s extensive use of symbols, to forget that the service is firmly rooted in scripture. It is, essentially, the Christian Passover. As evidence of this, on the altar during vigil in the ancient church there was bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper, but also milk and honey, Smith said.
“We’re breaking open these stories from the Bible that we’ve just read and experiencing them through all our senses,” said Stephens.
“People need to experience the kind of symbol and sacrament that we have in the vigil,” said Roy Jaeger, who helped prepare Laney and others on their walk toward initiation into the Catholic Church.
“It just rings true on some unspoken level. We feel it’s true in the marrow of our bones.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.