My favorite thing about the Easter vigil is the focus on light... at the beginning of the Mass, the congregation sits in the darkened chapel with unlit candles. The priest enters carrying the new Paschal candle and singing, followed by a number of people with smaller candles, who proceed to spread the light about the church.

In the space of a minute or less, the entire space goes from pitch-blackness to the lovely, comforting, and warm glow of hundreds of candles. Combined with the singing and the general atmosphere of joy in the room, it becomes breathtaking, even awe-inspiring. Next comes the Exsultet, whose haunting melody and joyous words are enough to bring you almost to tears... the saddest part of the Mass is when we all extinguish our candles and the lights come back on... it would be so much nicer if the entire Mass was done by candlelight. It is, however, necessary that the candles be extinguished...

The Sacraments of Initiation invariably make everyone directly involved get tears, and a number of us who were not directly involved had to blink back tears. At baptism, each of the newly baptized is told "Recieve the light of Christ", and gets a lit baptismal candle from a godparent. The newly baptized then spread the light around the room again, with such a look of joy on their faces I can't possibly describe...

The Easter vigil is magic. Even if you're not a Catholic, even if you don't believe in God at all, you must know that no words can explain the atmosphere of joy in the church, the feeling of being part of such greatness. And everyone is welcome, and it's really really worth being a part of. I can't do it justice... so see for yourself.

Christ Church is, for many people, the last place on earth people would expect me to be seen in. It's a severe-looking Gothic Revival High Anglican church on an odd-shaped lot overlooking New Haven's Broadway, a surreally complex strip of street including an island parking lot, a seven-way intersection, several Star Wars-like college buildings, and not incidentally, a thriving row of hip chain stores and pizza parlors. Inside, it's hardly less forbidding: hard wooden chairs with tough little leather kneeler pads sub for the normal comfy pews typical of New England Protestantism, and the place is replete with bleeding Christs, inscriptions in Latin, and enough trappings of popery to make us slightly more Catholic-looking than most modern Catholic churches.

The liturgy is conservative and elaborate: one can, if so inclined, take daily Communion, confess, observe both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (with Compline on Sundays), and various other services large and small. Every Sunday, and other times throughout the year, there are High Masses, with incense, choirs singing Baroque music, parishioners singing Gregorian Chants, bell-ringing, and the like. There are also non-liturgical practises, as well, that some outsiders might find vaguely disturbing, such as a form everyone fills out/updates on All Souls' Day stating their funeral preferences, that strongly suggest that this isn't a contemporary First Megachurch of Sweetness and Light.

Which it isn't. The Christian calendar, together with the cycle of the Psalms, spans every emotion from joyous celebration to grief and remorse to righteous anger to serenity to ecstasy (which, strictly speaking, isn't an emotion): the liturgy of Christ Church expresses all these, and more in song, verse, and theatrics. In short, we can get downright morbid at times...especially during Holy Week, and some people might be excused for the assumption that the parishioners of such a church would be stuffy, mostly elderly, and probably conservative Old Money, with little to do with the vibrant, progressive, multicultural life of the Broadway strip.

Actually, this is far from the truth. Though Anglicanism does concern itself closely with the English-speaking sphere of influence, we have a great number of members who aren't white (being West Indian, Asian, African...pretty much anywhere the British Empire sent a few colonists), Anglo-Saxon (my godfather is --self-described-- Scotch, and PROUD of it), or from Protestant backgrounds (we've got converts from you-name-it). We've got openly gay members (quite a few, actually...), old members, young members, homeless members, wealthy members (not many though), lots of young professionals in computing and helping professions, music and theater students from Yale, and some unclassifiable folks (such as m'self...). Politically, we're every stripe from radical-progressive (our 90-year-old Priest Emeritus) to libertarian (me). As much as we're into grief and penance, we're also into having fun: in the same holiday season that we're making out our funeral plans, a good many people -- with full blessing from the Vestry -- are coming to church dressed in their finest goth garb, a splendid sight indeed.

Both of these emotional poles are at their most extreme at the most mind-blowingly intense service of the year, Easter Vigil.

It's 8:30 PM, and very cold. Everyone is in black, or dim-colored wintry clothes, keeping their Springy new Easter clothes for the morning. There's a generally grim mood in the beginning, since a good number of people have been in church every day of the last week, fasting, examining their consciences, and generally submerging themselves in their deepest, darkest, emotions. There's no light, except for bitty candles (which get snuffed out and relit, at times) a few dim lights for the lector and musicians, and sometimes, no light at all. The Exsultet is read, and everyone feels portentously creepy as the priest and his servers do mysterious things with fire and water. Scriptural passages give a quick recap of the Old Testament, minus the boring war parts, in between singing and chanting and praying. (It can't get much worse here, folks.) Everything goes dark. Then everyone relights their candles... People get baptized, and everyone renews their vows, turning to welcome the bewildered new Christians who are given candles and gowns while they look out over what looks like a primitive cave, or catacomb full of tiny lights -- you can almost envision what it must have looked like during the Roman persecutions, or even to prehistoric peoples, welcoming the renewal of life. They walk down the aisle, through the sea of light and warm faces... And then, all of a sudden...


All the lights come on at once, the organ blasts a fanfare, everyone turns around to the front of the church to see the altar all decked out with banners, with re-embroidered brocade, with gems, and tons of flowers everywhere...there's shouting and singing and processing, leading into the First Mass of Easter....Christ is risen! Whoopie! Yahoo! and let's party, alleluia! Hooray!

This year, we had a visit from the Bishop, which meant that a few other Episcopal churches sent delegations, which included an elderly cousin of mine, who I'll call Joan, who is known for appearing somewhat more devout than the Archbishop of Canterbury. (Physically, she resembles the current Queen Elizabeth, and is known, outside of church, for giving, with great ceremony, really sucky birthday and Christmas presents.) Worse, she's Low Church, which is a lot less theatrical, and a lot more "moral". My mother cautioned me about standing next to her, since she actually can BE stuffy, but described her hat, should I want to walk over and talk to her after the service. Since my wont is to sneak unobtrusively into the next-to-last row of chairs on the Epistle side, and the church was fairly crowded, I escaped unseen.

My own mood was frankly, meditative. It had been a year since I'd been baptized, yes, during Easter Vigil, in this very same church. During this year, I'd seen plenty of personal loss and disaster and in turn committed numberless sins of gluttony, lust, anger, sloth, dishonesty and petty theft against God and man. Easter Vigil looked to be less a prelude to a festive day of rabbits, chocolate eggs, and overeating with a family than a respite between two otherwise ordinary, underfunded, weekend days at my new apartment. In other words, I wanted nothing more or less than to enter into the spirit of the evening: maybe it really would renew my spirit. Maybe I would even get out of my rut, and into a more productive state of mind. So it was that I followed the readings, chanted the Psalms, knelt, stood and sat with the best of them. When the lights came on, I shouted "He is risen indeed!" along with the procession with wild enthusiasm, to show the Bishop that Christ Church knew how to do it right! I felt so exhilarated (and mildly hyperventilated -- all that chanting, you know) that I bent the standards of decorum to smile and wave goofily to Joan during the Peace. Calming down to a feeling of quiet delight during Thanksgiving, I arose to take Communion.

This, in Christ Church, is somewhat of a stately pavanne, the assumption being that this is the most efficient way to deal with large numbers of people who are each having complex, intense, and highly personal experiences while being made (at least temporarily) one with God. Therefore, queueing up, going to the rail, and returning to one's seat by way of the Lady Chapel is an almost Zen-like excercise set to music in standing quietly, moving forward when necessary, and performing a few sacramental postures while being completely oblivious to any other participants than the servers -- any outward display of emotion, or social interaction more forward than a somewhat impersonal smile is bound to be politely, but definitively, ignored. Since I'd been studying the Alexander Technique, I looked forward to using the time to practise balancing "just so" on my feet, relaxing my face, and breathing deeply while waiting, relishing every moment of the deep meaningfulness of it all, as I performed an act that linked me through the two intervening millenia...Ah, time to begin, exit row, one foot a pace behind, drop down, rise...

It was then that someone called my name. "Ain't you gonna talk to your ole cousin Joan?" I looked up to find her, bolted through the line, coming to meet me.

"Ah..." I said, trying to figure out what to do, since I didn't want to waste my high on explanations.

"...and this is my cousin I was talking to you about...last year, it was her big day..." In stunned silence, I was introduced to the new minister of Grace Church, her husband, and three or four of the crowd that had come with her. I might have mumbled something polite, but I was too busy looking to see if anyone noticed this egregious break in protocol.

"Um..." I tried to indicate altarward. "I really should be getting into line."

"Well, I'll go right with you!"

Somehow, in her eyes, getting to the rail wasn't so much a contradance as a race, with her triumphal arrival as prize. Once there, she made a conspicuous gesture of praying after the Elements were given out, giving me (who'd gotten used to springing right up -- being usually next-to-last, I hate keeping everyone waiting) a chance to escape. I bowed to the Cross in the side chapel, and, as is my custom, lit one candle to the Virgin, and sunk down for a quick mini-visit with the Lady to tell her my inmost desires of the heart.

"Blessed Virgin," I implored breathlessly, "bless me and keep me safe...from my relatives. Got that? Please? Amen?"

Normally, I emerge from Communion a little lightheaded and pleased, but this time, I all but bolted back to my seat, grabbed my hymnal and began to sing furiously, figuring that diligence might protect me. Then, calming slightly, I sank to my knees as the Bishop gave one final Benediction.

Mid-prayer, I was roused from my reverie one last time. "Happy Easter darling." Joan said, thrusting a piece of crumpled paper into my hand before barging out of the church with her cronies, the Bishop droning on in the background.

I stood for the dismissal and recessional, sat down, and only after the candles were extinguished, did I look down at what was in my hand.

It was a five dollar bill. Trust Joan to do something like that.

Nothing like waking up at pre-dawn, and heading out to church, where there's a bonfire set up in the middle of the church grounds.

Cars stop momentarily as the bonfire is lit and as it burns -  a pillar of flame within a city is visually arresting, especially when attended by a half dozen robed folk and thronged with a crowd. A bonfire in front of a church, for some older people, conjures up images of book burnings or burnings of rock music. But in this instance, the flames are three fold.

One is as a visual representation of a vigil light or searchlight - the flame from the combustion of the pyre is distributed amongst candle-holding parishioners, who take it into the church which is lit by no other light at that time.

The second is a bit deeper. The flames are used to burn the palm fronds used on Palm Sunday. Not everything was resurrected with Jesus' resurrection. He was resurrected into a body his followers didn't recognize, at first. And gone were the expectations of military and worldly dominion - of Messiah as earthly Lord and King. How fitting that in the same way that the political readings of Jesus' life died on Good Friday - that we burn away the symbol of those peoples' accolades and worldly tribute, shedding the old expectations and saluting the new. In Christian iconography the palm frond has come to symbolize the victory of spirit over flesh - the very meditation of Lent, and the ashes from the burnt palm fronds are the very ashes that will be used to anoint the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the following year.

The third is practical. In the chill of the morning air, a fifteen foot tall pillar of burning wood is something to huddle around and get light and heat from in the darkness. There is a natural fellowship and an instinctual call to the hearth. Jesus is represented by the very real light, and the very real heat of the gathering.

There is something holy, and very moving about a huddled mass of parishioners holding candles for heat and light in a darkened building, waiting for the dawn. For practical reasons the lights are usually brought up at some point in the service, usually before the first reading - but not enough so that you don't notice the dawn breaking through the stained glass windows as the sun finally rises. And in the same way that a darkened room can be scarier, and because loss of vision increases and sharpens other senses - you smell the incense more cleanly, hear the voices echo off the walls more fully, and are aware of the presence of people nearby more acutely. As the service gets into full swing and the light fully bathes the church, that sense of togetherness is replaced by a sense of jubilation. But for that magic period, the vigil is kept in very much the same way that night watches have been kept across time.

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