The Rev. Canon Jeunée Cunningham is a priest in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, serving as Canon for Congregational Development for the Diocese and Rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Appomattox, Virginia.
The Easter Vigil has been the highlight of my year ever since I first came into the Episcopal Church. I grew up “generic Protestant” and although I had had a relationship with Jesus ever since I was a young child, I had never been baptized. I figured I had “missed the baptism window” – that baptism was for babies, or adults who had had a conversion experience, but that since I believed, it wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t until I began to worship in the Episcopal Church as a newly married 20something with a newborn son, that I began to understand the importance of baptism, not only for the individuals baptized, but for the church community as well.
I entered a time of preparation and my son and I were both baptized at the Easter Vigil in 1989, which in the early church, was the primary time set aside for baptism. Our two other children were baptized at the Vigil as well. Each time we rose in what seemed like the middle of the night, preparing our babies in hushed tones trying to keep them asleep for as long as possible, driving off to church in the dark, and gathering with others in the courtyard of the church for the lighting of the new fire at 5:30 in the morning. When the time came, we stood around the font in near darkness, gazing out to see the beautiful faces of the congregation lit by the fire of the candles they each held. How powerful it was to me to realize that through this ancient service we were linked to our brothers and sisters in Christ, not only in our congregation, but around the world and through the ages. As the opening prayer to the vigil states “the church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer.”
Now, as a priest, the Vigil for me continues to be a powerful time that mysteriously connects the people of my local church community with the whole human family Jesus came to redeem. As the Exsultet, that ancient prayer celebrating Salvation and Light, says, “How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.”
When I chant the Exsultet, (there being no deacon in my current congregation) I am often brought to near tears by the line “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.” This is the essence of the mystery that we proclaim at all times, that God has come to us in Jesus, to make reconcile us to himself, at great sacrifice to himself.
Marion Hatchett says that the ancient Easter Vigil, recovered in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer, is
“the keystone about which the rest of the church year is built. Other baptisms of the year reflect this primary baptismal rite. Other Eucharists of the year are, to use the anology of Augustine of Hippo, the repeatable part of this rite. In the Great Vigil of Easter we celebrate and make present (anamnesis) the pivotal events of the Old and New Testament heritage, the passover of the Hebrews from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, the Passover of our Lord Jesus Christ from death, and our own Passover from the bondage of sin and death to the glorious liberty of new life in Christ Jesus.” (Hatchett, p.242-243)
Each year I celebrate the vigil, it brings new meaning to my life as a baptized Christian, to my understanding of the sacred stories of our faith, and to the mystery of communion I enjoy with God and my neighbors, with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven through the Eucharist. Alleluia. Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.