We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song. The Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith. Baptism is our entrance into Resurrection living. Eucharist is our renewal of Resurrection in our daily lives, our food for the Resurrection journey. Yet for many Christians the Cross has become a fixation, not a tree of life but a permanently occupied place for the victim. One of my issues with the popular phrase ‘wounded healer’ is that it emphasises the wound, which is not a scab to be picked over, but like the scars of the crucifixion on the Risen Christ a sign of victory.
Livestreaming on Facebook during the first lockdown from my little lean-to chapel I was fascinated by the numbers of people watching or at least popping in. One of the most popular liturgies was a Resurrection Vigil which I celebrate each Saturday evening in Ordinary Time and Easter in place of the Night Prayer of Compline. I had been doing this for some years. Livestreaming gave the opportunity to think about this liturgy and I write briefly about it here and here. This post is a reworking of that material with the current update of the Resurrection Vigil booklet,
My first experience of a Resurrection Vigil was on a Saturday night at a camp site in the Brecon Beacons. I was on a week’s walking holiday along with other young people from parishes belonging to Douai Abbey, I must have been fifteen or sixteen. We had prayed Compline together (and Mass each morning) all week and on Saturday evening sat around the camp fire and sang songs from the Charismatic song book ‘Songs of the Spirit’, read a resurrection narrative, chanted a psalm or two and were sprinkled with water which one of the priests present had blessed. I was entranced. Not least by the marshmallows and hot chocolate that we enjoyed afterwards.
I have never been able to pray Compline on a Saturday night in the same way since. It seems totally inadequate as a way of preparing for Sunday.
A year or so later I was at Taizé in France for the first time and was equally entranced by the Saturday evening prayer there, repeating alleluias, the lighting of candles by everyone present. Having stayed up much of the previous night in prayer ‘around the cross’ I was transfixed by this celebration of the Risen Jesus and felt his presence very strongly.
Since those years I have experienced Resurrection vigils with numerous communities, tried various forms of it at home – sometimes in the garden around a fire, or at the dining table – and shared simple liturgies of Resurrection in many parishes and with groups of pilgrims and young people in a variety of contexts.
I have added below a form of Resurrection Vigil that I am currently using in my little Oratory in the basement, the sacro speco at home in the Sub Deanery. It works for me, you might want to do something else. As usual I stopped doing this during the Advent and Christmas season but for various reasons really missed it this year. In fact I have decided to continue celebrating it during Lent this year. Perhaps all the gloom of lockdown is just too much. We certainly need Resurrection. So the new booklet includes chants for use in Lent without the Alleluia.
One of the problems with the liturgical year can be an over literalism around a sort of ‘play acting’ of the mysteries which the liturgy celebrates. As if Jesus is not born until 25th December, as if he is not Risen until the final night of Holy Week. Fr Aelred Arnesen formerly of the now closed Anglican Cistercian Ewell Monastery in West Malling writes very strongly of this. He wouldn’t even approve of my removing the Alleluia in Lent:
“The recent trend in liturgical reform is backwards. The Christian life is to be seen as a journey towards God in the course of which we devote a portion of each year to what has been called ‘liturgical realism’, emptying out the sense of the real presence of Christ with us until we reach Easter. According to the tradition one must not sing alleluia during Lent! This has stood gospel on its head.”
The Resurrection is the central fact of the Christian faith, celebrating it, being familiar with the gospel accounts, reflecting on the Patristic commentaries on the Resurrection is a wonderful way to keep this central fact central to our lives. Celebrating a Resurrection Vigil also gives shape to the week, along with memorialising the Crucifixion each Friday and observing fasting and abstinence on Fridays. Doing this has been a blessing to me, I hope this will bless you.
Let me end with more strong words from Fr Aelred in another of his essays (do take time to visit the Ewell website where you can read a number of Allred’s papers and also see and download the beautifully simple liturgy used by the community there:
“First of all, taking our cue from the early beginnings of the calendar when the annual Easter celebration and every Sunday were the only commemorations, it is essential to return to Easter as the single focus of our worship in the year. While the pre-reformation understanding that the ritual of the various seasons had to be performed correctly so that we may arrive eventually at the celebration of the resurrection at Easter and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, in our alternative understanding, every season and every commemoration is irradiated and is given meaning through the glory of Easter. Christmas and Epiphany and the commemorations dependent on those days; the later feasts of the Transfiguration and the apostles and martyrs – all have meaning only in relation to the living Lord who is always dynamically present to the whole church. With Easter as the single focus of the Calendar, Christmas finds its proper level as just one of the events of Jesus’ life, even if one of the most important.”