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.