By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
Tonight, on a hillside overlooking McCullough Boulevard in Tupelo, the Rev. Rick Brooks will set fire to a stack of kindling and begin reading from the United Methodist Book of Worship.
The last, cool breaths of winter will whisper on the necks of the members of St. Luke United Methodist Church, and they’ll pull their jackets around themselves and watch in silent wonder as the ancient ritual unfolds.
The flame will dance brightly against Brooks’ vestments, and in the orange glow the solemn faces of his congregation will emerge like visions from the church’s ancient past.
“The symbols – the darkness and the fire – go underneath and beyond cognitive thinking,” said Brooks.
St. Luke is one of the few Methodist churches that will celebrate the Easter Vigil this year, although the text for the service has been in the denomination’s liturgical guidelines for nearly two decades.
The vigil has been celebrated since the earliest days of Christianity, when Jesus’ followers, many of whom believed their fallen brother would return right away, kept watch through the night.
Today, many churches that follow the Western liturgical calendar, such as the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, hold to the ancient practice of celebrating the vigil, and some mainline Protestant churches are following suit. For many Christians, the vigil is the most symbolically rich and emotionally stirring liturgy of the year.
Most congregations will begin their service tonight like the folks at St. Luke, outside, around the fire.
The minister will announce, “Sound the trumpet of salvation, and know that the ancient darkness has been banished from the world.”
The fire will serve as the source for lighting the Easter candle, which, for the rest of the year, will shine as new members receive baptism.
As the faithful make their way inside the darkened church, the minister will call out three times, in a solemn voice, “Christ our light,” or “The light of Christ,” to which all will respond, “Thanks be to God.”
The flame from the Easter fire will spread throughout the congregation, with members lighting each other’s candles as they enter the church singing and praying.
Once inside, the powerful strains of the Exsultet will rise up like a storm. “This is a beautiful text, just beautiful,” said the Rev. Bob Dalton, pastor in residence at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Houston. “It gives a gorgeous, poetic account of salvation history.”
In the flickering candlelight, the cantor will sing:
“This is the night, when you freed the people of Israel and led them dry shod through the sea. This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death, and rose triumphant from the grave.”
The song will continue, telling how, through Christ’s death and resurrection, innocence has been restored, and heaven and earth have been wed.
The first scripture readings will be recited in darkness, speaking of the void that was the world before God formed it into creation.
The images from Genesis will speak of a space and time not yet touched by the hand of God.
The highs and lows of Biblical history will unfold, as the faithful listen to the prophet Ezekiel tell of the disobedience of the children of Israel.
After the last of the Old Testament readings, the church will resurrect its triumphant hymn of praise, the “Gloria,” the song that it laid aside during the weeks of Lent.
The organ will thunder, the lights will come on, and the faithful will sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!” They’ll bring forth flowers and decorate the sanctuary.
“We’ve now gone from waiting and anticipation, to the Easter event,” said Dalton.
Churches in the Anglican Communion will sing the “collects,” a series of calls and responses that speak of the church bearing witness throughout history to Christ crucified and risen.
“Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up,” said the Rev. Paul Stephens, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo, reading from the vigil liturgy.
“Things which had grown old, are being made new.”
Since Christianity’s beginning, Easter was the time for bringing new members into the fold.
For many that will mean baptism, the sacrament most explicitly tied to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
During the vigil, members will read from the epistles of Paul, as well as a gospel account of Easter morning. The readings remind the faithful that they will die with Christ and will be raised with him to glory. .
The minister will bless the water, recalling the numerous instances in scripture where water symbolized God’s blessing and mercy, such as Moses leading the Israelites to freedom through the Red Sea, and water flowing from Jesus’ side when he was pierced with a lance.
The church will voice its solidarity with the candidates, and each member will renew their own baptismal vows. Responding in unison to the minister’s questions, they’ll reject the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by the prince of darkness.
Tonight, at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, nine-year-old Victoria Cross will receive baptism along with her mother, Misty.
After months of preparation they, along with Victoria’s father, Jason, are excited about entering the community.
“The Eucharist is the biggest expectation for me,” said Jason, who was baptized years ago in another church and will therefore only receive the sacraments of confirmation and first communion.
“I’m a little nervous, but a new door is opening for me and my family,” said Jason.
After the Rev. Tom Lalor administers the sacraments to the Crosses, his words will be much like those he’ll speak at the end of the service, when he sends everyone out to bear witness that Jesus is risen from the dead:
“Lord God, by water and the Holy Spirit you have freed your sons and daughters from sin and given them new life. Send your Holy Spirit to be their guide, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of right judgment and courage, a spirit of knowledge and reverence.”
As the faithful leave the church, the light from the Easter fire will continue to burn atop the paschal candle. It will burn each Sunday until Pentecost, and, thereafter, on every occasion, throughout the year, when a new member dies to her old self in the waters of baptism, and rises with Jesus to eternal life.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678–1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.