What an incredibly joyful Easter Vigil we celebrated last night. I always find moving the opening ritual of that service: the lighting of the fire, and of the Paschal candle from that fire; it’s procession into the darkened church building (“Behold the light of Christ”) and the singing of the Exsultet as the light spreads throughout the church building, first to the candles that the congregation and holding, and then to candles on the altars and around the building.
We renewed our baptismal promises, gathered around the font. I’ve seen this bit happen too often where we simply sit in our pews and make it all a cerebral activity, a conscious, mental decision to turn to God. But baptism is a sacrament, an outward expression of an inward grace. It is about being cleansed. It is about passing through the waters of death and being born anew in Christ. So we gathered around the font, into which I poured a healthy amount of water from an earthenware jug. What power there is in water as a symbol, even just a relatively small amount like that; the sound as I poured it into the matching earthenware bowl within the font, the feel of the water on our faces and hands as I liberally sprinkled it on the congregation gathered, at the end of the renewal of our baptismal vows. It was a powerful reminder, and it felt so good to be acting out something and adding depths of meaning to something that could so easily have been just another mindless repetition of words.
It wasn’t without incident/hiccup, however. We didn’t have a server, for a start, to keep me right; our usual and very faithful server had to call off at the last minute as she’s come down with some nasty chest infection. So, I got outside to light the fire and in the process of making sure that everyone had their hand-held candles I realised that I didn’t have my candle: the Paschal candle. It was still sitting on top of the vestment cupboard in the vestry!
There is a light above the door to the church building, which was most useful for reading the prayers as we blessed and lit the fire and traced the alpha and omega (reminding us that God is the first and last) and the current date on the candle. However, just as soon as I was about to insert the first of five incense grains into the candle (to represent the five wounds of Christ) the light, for no obvious reason, went out. The congregation gathered around the fire giggled, as I fumbled around for the prepared holes in the candle. I felt like Fr. McGoo!
When we reached the Eucharist, Brenda (the deacon) and I had to juggle a few roles between us, that of priest, deacon and server. Brenda prepared the altar while I swapped my cope for a chasuble. There was then a bit of commotion in the congregation as one member noticed that the bread and wine were sitting on the table at the back of the church building, but her neighbour wouldn’t let her passed thinking that she was nudging her to express how delighted she was at singing such a rousing hymn.
Once we had the altar prepared (at last!) Brenda retired to the vestry to retrieve the thurible (Oh yes! we had smells and bells last night!). I stood patiently beside the altar as the final verse of the hymn died away and silence descended. I watched through the gap in the door as Brenda walked back and forth across the vestry. After what seemed an age, but must only have been 20 or 30 seconds Brenda emerged from the vestry with the thurible in hand and whispered something to me. I paused for a moment before moving over to the top of the chancel steps. “Erm … who has the incense?” I asked. People started looking around them and one rather embarrased member of the congregation, who was sitting next to my wife, Jane, stepped forward. She had taken hold of the incense boat while Brenda and I were juggling thuribles and paschal candles in the dark earlier and had just taken it to her seat.
But in a way, none of that mattered. What mattered was that we were there and that we were joyfully giving thanks for the resurrection of Jesus. And what a celebration! I felt so uplifted and encouraged that we were in touch with something and someone real. The resurrected crucified Christ was present with us as the 11 of us gathered in that place. Alleluia!