On This Most Holy Night: An Easter Vigil with the Arts

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An Ancient Tradition

The first Easter Vigil I ever attended was in southern Ukraine, what is now annexed Crimea. I was 15 years old, on a spring break mission trip with my Christian high school. I don’t remember as much as I wish I did (and I admit I was smitten with a particular boy on that trip, sheesh), but I have maintained three vivid memories from that Orthodox Vigil.

First, there were no chairs in the sanctuary, so we stood the entire service. Then I remember walking in procession through the city of Sevastopol in the dead of night. Lastly, my Ukrainian host family had prepared a loaf of bread as an offering to bring to the Vigil and give to the priest, so I recall the smell of fresh-baked bread. This is to say, I remember the night viscerally. I remember what I did with my body and what my senses encountered. 

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The tradition of the Easter Vigil goes way back to the 3rd century, with a text attributed to Hippolytus of Rome that describes how the celebration took place, and according to one catholic journal, that ancient Vigil was “far longer than our current experience.”  I’m not sure that can be said of Church of the Cross in Boston.

The Draw of Embodied Worship

For more than ten years, we have hosted an Easter Vigil every Holy Saturday, with the added enjoyment of shaping it into a celebration of the Arts. We have, as a community, made this service even more about our embodied worship than all our other services, which seems appropriate given that we are keeping Vigil unto the resurrection.

As Anglicans, I’d say we do a good job of embodied worship all the liturgical year-long: our services are attentive to wood, brass, beeswax, cloth, water, wine, and bread. We process, we stand, we sit, we lift our hands, we kneel, we cross ourselves, we lift our own voices, we watch the Celebrant’s hands throughout the Eucharist liturgy, we close our eyes at times, we lift high the Scriptures, we walk to the front of the sanctuary, we hold out our hands, we open our mouths, we chew, we swallow, we walk back. In my ordination, I even laid prostrate in the front of the sanctuary. This whole-self way of worship became one of the main reasons I personally felt drawn into the Anglican tradition. And the first service that really knocked my socks off, liturgically speaking, was the Easter Vigil. 

A First Taste of Easter Vigil

In the early 2000s, my husband and I and our young sons were attending a very small AMiA (Anglican Mission in the Americas) church in southern Virginia. Not only did they do all the bodily activities listed above, but they also tore off outer layers of clothing at the Easter Acclamation to reveal tie-dyed shirts! They suddenly brought out bells and shofars, kazoos, and trumpets that they’d kept hidden under their seats! There was shouting and a “joyful fanfare” like I’d never witnessed before (except maybe at a VT football game), even dancing and glossolalia! Every bit of that unforgettable and transformative Vigil lifted my heart to the Lord. I was confirmed only a few months later.

Those who know me might say, “Well, of course that drew you in, Anna; you’re an artist.” And to that, I’d reply, “Thank you for noticing.” However, the power of the heritage we all have in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil goes beyond simply delighting the creative impulses of a few artists at church. The Vigil is for everyone.

An Embodied Easter Vigil

Easter Vigil fire at Church of the Cross Boston.

While we’ve made it extravagantly about creativity and artistry in our Boston context, let this not be lost on any Anglican brother or sister: the Vigil ushers us into the reality of God-made-flesh, then dead, buried, and bodily raised by the word of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit. This service is all about bodies! First, Jesus’ body, to be sure, but also, because we are in him, our bodies. Our hands, our noses, our pancreases, our toes, our hair follicles, our sight, our waistlines– all of it caught up in the astonishing confession that “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

The Light of Christ on Boston Common

This year, we stepped it up a few notches at our Vigil. A grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship made it possible to rent a much larger sanctuary in the heart of downtown Boston. We also decided to begin our procession on the Boston Common (essentially our Central Park). 

Because of laws against open fires on the Common, our former firefighter Rector (and my husband), Dave, built a faux fire that exceeded expectations! From it, he “lit” the (battery-operated) Christ candle, and we proceeded to make our way across Park Street and down Tremont Street—hundreds led by the deacon (that was me) as I sang The Light of Christ into a megaphone, and all God’s people responded…Thanks be to God! 

Light of Christ on Boston Commons

Some folks out in the city that night joined our procession, some shouted a few choice words in our direction, and one rowdy group of pub-goers knocked wildly on the front window as we walked by to offer a thumbs-up. There we were, a bit cold, with our battery-operated candles proclaiming the light of Christ to a city he loves. 

As the Rain and Snow Came Down

By the time we reached our seats, the choir had led us beautifully through the Exsultet, and we had settled down into the dark to hear the twelve readings (yes, you better believe we did all twelve), our collective senses primed. Church of the Crossers know to expect creative responses to each reading; it’s what marks our Vigil as distinctly artistic and full of surprises.

Easter Vigil Banners at Church of the Cross

We began with dancers in the aisles with enormous pieces of fabric. We then heard poems and songs and viewed paintings and digital comics. Members carried a large sculpture up onto the stage, and then the installation piece did its thing (a massive “cloud” that eventually separated and “fell” during the Isaiah 55 reading, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven…so shall my word…” designed and engineered by an amazing couple in our church), all while two women slowly adorned the cross on the balcony till it bloomed. That night, there was no forgetting that we are embodied creatures… especially as the clock ticked past midnight and we were still there, yawning and singing until quite a few of us lost our voices.

Flower-adorned cross at Church of the Cross Boston Easter Vigil. Worship Through the Work of Our Hands

All of this was the work of the hands of our people. We don’t commission outside artists to come in and wow us. As the Arts Pastor (a title I totally stole from David Taylor), I have no interest in making the Vigil into a Broadway show. This is a worship service. All the work of our hands will only be established to the degree it is offered up to the One we love. The One who broke the bonds of death, trampling Hell and Satan under his feet.

I pray that the light of Christ revealed spectacularly at the Vigil from the procession all the way to the Table would permeate right into our bones in a new and visceral way. I kept repeating to our team of willing and wonderful volunteers: this is about Jesus. But because it’s about Jesus, let’s give it our absolute best! And, with only a few glitches (to remind us that we’re only human), we did just that. 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


Cover and embedded photos by Debbie Hoehner for Church of the Cross Boston.

Published on

April 22, 2024

Author

Anna Friedrich

The Rev. Anna A. Friedrich is a poet, deacon, and the Arts Pastor at Church of the Cross in Boston.

View more from Anna Friedrich

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