History of the Great Vigil
The Great Vigil of Easter is the most ancient rite in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It has its origins in the very early Church, when Christianity was not yet practiced openly and the process of instruction for Holy Baptism (catecuminate, the source of the word Catechism) took three years in order to weed out infiltrators.
After three years of instruction, during which the Catecumens were escorted from the worship service prior to the Holy Eucharist, the Great Vigil became the time for their Baptism and admission as communicants of the Church.
The Great Vigil properly occurs overnight on the Eve of Easter, starting at sundown (the start of the Jewish day) and continuing until sunrise (hence the modern tradition of Easter Sunrise services). Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran churches vary in their practices, but at St. Elizabeth's, we will begin at 7pm (even though it's a bit prior to local sunset) and plan for a slightly longer service than our Sunday morning Holy Eucharists.
The Lighting of the Paschal Candle
We gather in darkness. Candles will be distributed to members of the congregation.
At the rear of the Church, the New Fire will be lit, traditionally using steel and flint.
The Paschal Candle, which will remain lit throughout the Great 50 Days of Easter, is blessed, and the five incense spikes (representing Jesus' wounds at the Crucifixion) placed into it.
It will be lit from the New Fire, and an acolyte will take a flame from it.
The Deacon (or Priest) will slowly process the Paschal Candle to the front of the church, stopping thrice to chant "The Light of Christ," to which the congregation replies "Thanks be to God." The Acolyte will share the flame with the Congregation behind the procession.
The Paschal Candle will be placed in its stand next to the Lectern. The Deacon/Priest will then chant the Exsultet, which dates several centuries to before the Reformation.
The Liturgy of the Word
At this point, a series of Lessons, responses (Psalms/Canticles), and Collects will tell the story of the "Gods's saving deeds in history." The Book of Common Prayer lists nine such sets, of which we will use four. "Israel' deliverance at the Red Sea" is always included.
Holy Baptism/Renewal of Baptismal Vows
If there is anyone to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, that will be performed at this time. In any event, this is the time for the People to renew their own Baptismal Vows.
At the Eucharist
The Celebrant declares the Resurrection with the words "Alleluia, Christ is Risen!"
The People reply "The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."
This will be repeated three times, raising in volume each time.
All are encouraged to ring bells and make make joyful noises to celebrate the Risen Christ.
As voices raise in song, the lights are raised, the Altar Party vests in white, and the Sanctuary is prepared for the first Easter celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
The Epistle, Psalm, and Gospel are read, followed by the Easter Homily and the Peace.
Festival Holy Eucharist
The service continues as on any other Sunday, but with the much celebration and many Alleluias.