Great Vigil services can have 'all the bells and whistles'

In various cultures, it's called Holy Saturday, Low Saturday, Easter Eve, Silent Saturday, Black Saturday, White Saturday and Great Saturday.

While most Protestant churches in the United States don't mark the day when, according to the Christian Bible, Jesus lay in his tomb after crucifixion on Friday and before resurrection on Sunday, most Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches hold an Easter vigil service.

"Believe it or not, it is or was considered the primary liturgy of the church," according to the Rev. John Dukes, interim rector at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church on Signal Mountain, which holds a Great Vigil service at 7 p.m.

In its original versions, he said, the service often went on much of the night as one week ended and another began, as the old became the new, as night became day and as the prophesies mentioned on the Old Testament were fulfilled in the New Testament.

"It covered the entire suite of salvation history," Dukes said. "It was a very lengthy service."

The original liturgy included 12 Old Testament readings and as many as 12 New Testament readings, he said.

The St. Timothy's service is an abbreviated version of the traditional service, Dukes said.

It begins outside, where the paschal, or Easter, candle is lit. Worshipers then move inside to the church's narthex, where the Old Testament lessons are read. With the paschal candle in front, worshipers then process into the darkened nave, where an Easter proclamation is made, the space lit, those present renew the vows made for them at their baptism and the New Testament lessons are read.

A sermon or homily and a traditional Holy Communion service conclude the proceedings.

"The pageantry can be quite ornate," Dukes said. "It can be very dramatic [as it moves from] an old, dark, tedious kind of message to a dramatic new celebration."

The Rev. Susan Butler of Grace Episcopal Church said the services has "all the bells and whistles" and is "a grand liturgy" that especially appeals to people who love high-church services.

Grace's 8 p.m. service, she said, also starts outside, in the courtyard, where the new paschal candle is lit. Those in attendance, in turn, have their tapers lit.

When those assembled move inside the darkened nave, there is a "scriptural recounting of the history to save God's people," Butler said. "It's really quite remarkable."

At the point where St. Timothy's parishioners will renew their baptism, Grace will baptize two people.

"At a pivotal moment in the liturgy," Butler said, "the lights come on. It's a very dramatic movement from darkness to light. [The service has] got it all covered."

The service at Grace is followed by a champagne reception, "the first meal of the resurrection," she said.

Dukes and Butler said depending on the setting and the elements employed, the Great Vigil can take on even more pageantry.

Some churches begin their service at 10:30 p.m., Duke said, so the service ends as Saturday moves into Sunday. It also may be done early on Sunday morning, he said, where it begins in the darkness but ends as the sun begins to rise.

Butler said many churches uses incense in their services, which, combined with the light and dark, the candles, the baptismal water, the fragrance of outdoor flowers, and the flames, "appeals to the senses."

"It's really quite remarkable," she said.

Vigil services at other local Episcopal churches include Christ, 8 p.m. Saturday; Church of Good Shepherd, Lookout Mountain, 9 p.m. Saturday; St. Francis of Assisi, Ooltewah, noon Saturday; St. Martin of Tours, 7 a.m. Sunday; St. Paul's, 6:30 a.m. Sunday; St. Thaddaeus', 9 p.m. Saturday; and Thankful Memorial, 8:30 p.m. Saturday.