Sunday, April 5, 2015

Why I Boycott the Easter Vigil: This Service Will Not Stand, Man!

[Crusty takes time out from his book-writing sabbatical for a few thoughts on the Easter Vigil.]

In the C.S. Lewis Narnia books, there's a recurring refrain about Aslan the Lion, the Son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea and the Christ figure in the series.  It's regularly said about him "He's not a tame lion."  In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for instance, it's said, "It's not as if you can keep him...he's not a tame lion."  There's several meanings to this.  On one level, it means Aslan, while he
In "Taken V", Liam Neeson and Aslan team up to rescue his grandchildren.
may seem gentle and kind at times, also can be wild, exercising ferocious judgment when circumstances warrant.  On another level, it also means Aslan does not operate according to our own wishes or the way we may want him to.  C.S. Lewis was always pretty clear that the divine in the Narnia books was not an analog, or a "kind" of God: it was the same God that we have.  When once asked if Aslan was "like" Jesus, Lewis replied that no, he "was" Jesus: who was to say God would not have appeared in different form in a different context?  As Mr Beaver put it, "of course he has other countries to attend to."

"Taming" the divine is something not just confined to an image of God as some sort of beast.  It's something that many religions do, Christianity as much (if not more) than any others.  Though perhaps not a literal wild animal, there are things inherent in many religions that are so powerful and transformative that they are terrifying.  We tame religion not because it is dangerous, but because it can be threatening to our own, entrenched, entropic, at times sinful, ways of living.  Here's one example:  Francis of Assisi.  Francis is beloved by everyone, winner of a recent online popularity
That chasuble really held the service together, Dude.
contest.  The Francis everyone gets mushy about is the one we have tamed.  The real Francis took his life in his hands to go preach to Muslims to try to convert them.  The real Francis ordered his brothers not to even physically touch money, it was so corrupting.  The real Francis left a Testament was so onerous to follow it was quickly circumvented by his successors, as the order created by the Francis who lived in poverty within a generation became one of the richest and powerful religious orders in the world.  We don't remember that Francis much, instead reducing him to an animal loving Dr Doolittle crossed with a 60s Brother-Sun-Sister-Moon hippie Jesus freak, crossed with a kind of wisdom dispensing Dude from the Big Lebowski.  We could go on and on.  The Methodists in the United States who initially did not permit slaveholding who eventually caved when rich slaveholders began to join and abandoned the principle.  The Cross, the ultimate symbol of the overturning our conventions, has become such a fashion accessory that at times we cannot even grasp the depth of Paul's comments that such a symbol of shame and degradation had become one of victory. Our Christianity is not tame: it is a disrupting force that casts down the might from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly; chooses what is weak to shame the strong.  Christians, by and large, have desperately tried to suppress and transform that.

This is why, by and large, I boycott the Easter Vigil.  The Easter Vigil proclaims the craziest thing about Christianity:  that shameful, humiliating failure that is Good Friday is not the end, that God raised Jesus from the dead in a way we can never understand or comprehend, and that, in doing so, God rejiggered how we relate to one another and to God for all eternity.  That is f*****g nuts, people. Or, to paraphrase the ancient church theologian Tertullian, "I believe it because it is absurd." 
Here endeth Crusty's lesson.
In the movie The Untouchables, police officer Sean Connery asks plain-clothes treasury agent Kevin Costner why he's carrying a gun.  "I'm a treasury agent," he replies.  "OK," says Connery, walking away.  "You're not going to ask me for identification?" Costner protests.  "Who would claim to be that who wasn't?" replies Connery.  Who would claim this kind of narrative for a religion if one was trying to make it appealing?

The reason Crusty boycotts most Easter vigils is because they rarely communicate this.  Instead, they mostly have seemed to be just kind of longer versions of every other Sunday service.  COD grew up Roman Catholic in Boston in the 1970s, and there was no Easter vigil back then -- the liturgical renewals had not yet washed across Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and other liturgical churches.  We did, however, have the tradition of a Saturday afternoon vigil Mass that we sometimes went to.  When my parents got older, that was the Mass they regularly preferred.  I called them one Easter Day and asked how church was.  "We went to the regular Vigil Mass last night," my father replied, "and for some reason it was really long and seemed kind of pointless."  They had gone to the regular 5pm Vigil Mass as they usually did; this time, however, the parish had decided to hold an Easter Vigil.  My dad's words echo in my own ears at a goodly number of the Easter Vigils I've attended.  They seem like longer versions of a regular service, with louder music. Now, I'm not saying that all Easter Vigils suck -- some of them suck much, much more than others.  A few (a very few) rise above our attempts to tame the message and actually communicate that something different, and crazy, is happening.

An aside: I should probably tell you about my first Easter Vigil.  As I mentioned, I grew up Catholic before the Easter Vigil became widespread.  The first Easter Vigil I attended was the semester abroad I spent in Moscow, Russia, in the spring of 1990.  The Communist government had begun relaxing some of the restrictions on churches.  There was a parish church down the street from my dormitory, and I heard the bells ringing late on a Saturday night, almost midnight.  I realized it was Orthodox Easter and put on my coat and walked down the street.  The church was so packed I could not even
Crusty, 1990, Moscow, Russia.  The church is to my left, your right.
get in through the door, I stood outside, looking through the windows.  Crusty could see people moving around, barely, the church was so dark.   Suddenly the door flung open and a stream of people came out, all holding candles.  Someone thrust a candle into Crusty's hand and we all circled the church three times, the priest in front, all chanting in Slavonic, the ancient form of Russian that was used in the liturgy.  We stopped at the door of the church, now closed.  The priest and the people were shouting back and forth and Crusty could barely make it out (Slavonic and modern Russian are kind of like Shakespearean English and our English, though not an exact analogy -- words and phrases are similar but they can have different meanings and be prounced differently).  The priest was shouting something I thought was, "Christ! Sunday!" and the people were shouting back something that sounded like, "Yes it is truly Sunday!"  It was then I realized the Russian word for "Sunday" is "Resurrection." [Aside:  Russian has the weirdest names for days of the week, alternating between boring counting numbers and jarring reminders of religious origins in an officially at that time atheist society.  Mon-Sun are, loosely translated, "First Day of the Week," "Second," "Middle," "Fourth," "Fifth," "Sabbath," and "Resurrection."]  They were shouting "Christ is Risen!" "Truly he is risen!" Then the priest banged on the door, it opened, Crusty was carried into the church by the crush of the crowd, and in the church was now blindingly bright and white, and a four-hour liturgy ensued.  Crusty stumbled home around 4 am.

COD has been to numerous Orthodox Easter vigils since,  and he still gets goosebumps attending.  For one, they are actual vigils -- never beginning much before 11 pm.  One still enters in darkness, and there's an actual freakin' tomb in the middle of the church: what looks like a coffin with a cloth covering it.  Jesus is dead, you see.  Most Western Easter Vigils one would be hard pressed to remember that.  Around midnight, the priest emerges, singing, in the voice of Jesus to his mother, "Weep not for me...for I shall arise and shall be glorified!"  

The cloth is lifted from the tomb, carried over the head of the priest, and the congregations processes outside and around the church three times, before stopping at the front door as I first experienced.  The pounding on the door by the priest is a ritual re-enactment of the rock to the tomb cracking open,
He's dead, Jim.
as he shouts, "Christ is Risen!" the doors open. You know when the resurrection happens in an Orthodox Easter Vigil.  Once you process back inside, the church has been completely redecorated and is dazzling white, and the service itself includes a whole host of prayers and hymns you never hear any other time, as well as the same sermon preached every year, as the Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom is read.  You could never, ever, ever mistake the Easter Vigil, as my dad did, as just a longer version of the regular Sunday service.

Crusty remembers the first Easter Vigil he attended as an Episcopalian.  It was in his field education assignment as a seminarian.  As part of supervision, Crusty was scheduled to debrief the liturgy with his supervisor/mentor as part of our weekly meeting.  He asked me, "Do you have any questions about the liturgy itself?"  "Yes," Crusty replied, "when was the part where Jesus rose from the dead?"  He looked at me, perplexed.  "Well, when we said Christ is Risen."  COD said, "Really?  That was it?"  It seemed to Crusty we just had an extra-long series of readings by candelight, then shouted Jesus was raised, then went into the regular communion part with just louder and more festive hymns.

We hold our services at a time that's convenient for us.  8 pm or so.  We have a little clicker that lights the new fire from an approriately pre-packed flammable pile.  We stay packed safely in our pews. albeit often with candles.  To this day COD still thinks the moment that we proclaim Jesus' resurrection to be pretty lame.  The sermon is usually along the lines of, "Welcome to our visitors.  Although this service is about Jesus' resurrection, I will avoid discussing that as much as possible.  Try to be as nice to other people as you can be.  PS visitors please come back next Sunday.  Amen." [Disclaimer: yes, COD knows not all Easter Vigils and Easter sermons are like this, and that there are great examples out there, just like he knows there's a host of problems with the Orthodox Churches and their liturgy even though they have a kickass Vigil.]

This is not always the case, to be sure -- as Crusty said, some Easter Vigils suck less than others, and there have been a handful of Easter sermons Crusty actually remembers.  A very few Vigils are amazing.  There was a time when Crusty Old Dean's Wife, CODW (today is the greatest of all festivals:  Easter Day and CODW's birthday! It hasn't happened in her lifetime, but, thankfully, becomes much more common, occurring again in 2026, 2037, and 2048.  By contrast, all Crusty has gotten is Pentecost on his birthday in 1985 and 1996 and not again in my lifetime) served in a church that did just the kind of gonzo Vigil that COD thinks is needed.  The Vigil at CODW's church started at 5 am with the lighting not of a hibatchi but a big freaking bonfire.  Rather than people reading Bible passage after Bible passage, instead, gathered around the bonfire, different people were tasked with telling, not reading, the lessons.  One year Crusty told the story of the flood by throwing a giant bucket of water across the parking lot and using hand puppets for animals in the ark.  Full-immersion baptisms followed, and, around the time the sun was coming up, we processed into the church for the first Eucharist of Easter.   When it was first proposed, people though the clergy leadership were nuts.  No one will come.  CODW's last Easter at that church there about 100 people in attendance and an entire family was baptized by full immersion.

Pretty much ever since leaving CODW's church that had the awesome early morning Vigil, COD has tended quietly to be absent from the Easter Vigil.  Often, COD will instead go to the Orthodox Easter Vigil at a nearby church, so he can experience what resurrection really feels like.

[Note:  CODW just asked, "Are you getting Crusty, or something?  Awfully quiet with lots of keys clacking."  COD: "Yeah, blogging about why I hate the Easter Vigil."  CODW:  Silence.]

COD sometimes wonders if the overwhelmingly majority of the Easter Vigils he has attended are symbolic, in some way, of the problems facing Christianity in the West: how we are finally reaping what we have sown in our endless accommodation to the society around us.  Christianity is f****g nuts, and we tend to try to do everything we possibly can to prevent that from being communicated.  Take baptism.  This is a ritual dying and rising again with Christ: as Paul says, as we have been baptized into a death like his, so shall we rise like him.  Full immersions that communicated this ritual passage from death to life passed into the dustbin of history.  Baptism became one's admittance into the citizenship of Christendom.  Today it's a sprinking with a little bit of water and a chance to coo at babies.   COD once noted someone who had been attending church where he served never received communion, but attended regularly.  Crusty asked, gently, why that was. "I'm not baptized," the person replied.  Oh, COD said, why don't we talk about baptism? "Why should I get baptized?" the person asked -- an honest question, this was an unchurched person who never grew up attending any kind of church and didn't know baptism from fraternity hazing. "Baptism is your full acceptance into the community," COD replied. "You mean I'm not welcome now?"  No, COD hemmed and hawed, of course you are.  "Will I go to hell if I don't?" he then asked.  More hemming and hawing, "Well, I don't think that, that's what Augustine thinks..."  Finally: "I just don't get why it's necessary," the person said.  COD wanted to say it was because we believe in a God who was one of us, died for us, and was raised by God, and in baptism we not only accept that faith, but we ritually re-enacted it ourselves.  But I didn't, because that would make me sound crazy and weird.  Crusty would tell this person what he really believes about why we should be baptized if he got a do-over.

The trappings of Christendom have fallen away: no longer can it be assumed anyone even knows, let alone cares, about the thousands-years-long process that adapted Christianity to culture so smoothly in what is now North America and Western Europe.  Where we tamed everything so that we could sit comfortably on Sundays and be reassured in our comfort and privilege.  We have tried to tame the lion.  We have obliterated the radical Francis.  We accommodated to slaveholding, and to segregation.   Simultaneously we wonder why Christianity is dying in North America and Europe.  COD has said it on this blog before, and he'll say it again:  Good riddance.  Let that Christianity die, let that adaptation to the caste system of our society wither.  Let's wander in the wilderness, let's remember that Christianity was called The Way by some of its earliest followers: a way to shape and live one's life, not a divine insurance policy that you make a weekly premium payment on a couple of Sundays a month so you can get into "heaven" as if we knew what that was.

That's why CODW boycotts the Easter Vigil.  At least until he gets his own church someday and can hold a gonzo, f****g nuts 5 am service, and do all full-immersion baptisms.

That's it for now, friends.  COD is still working on the book on the history of Christianity for church publishing, so is still taking a break from the blog to finish that.  Crusty promises he will be back and in full effect by June 1 with a series of General Convention preview columns.

Христос Воскресе! Воистину Воскресе!


  1. Yes! That Russian Orthodox vigil sounds amazing.

    I tried to push for more "out there" Easter Vigil practices when we were planning our ecumenical Easter Vigil service. I lost :( . Our Easter Vigil started at 6:30 pm. At least it included an actual lighting of a new fire outside and a procession of that flame into the sanctuary. Hopefully, next year, I can push for more.

  2. From a slightly tamer period of our life in 2008

  3. I bet the Orthodox one is just amazing, and I'd love to go. Still, it's been my favorite service of the year since I was a child, and even more so since I've been part of the Society of St. Margaret. Maybe some year you could join us at the convent for a Triduum in silence right through our 4AM Easter Vigil. Even our very simple one just blows me away every year, and the renewal of baptismal vows in that context is powerful. (I don't mind the fun of dousing and geting doused with the branchful of holy water, either!) And yes, I even love the series of lessons - even inside with the Paschal Candle, it has always felt to me like the one you attended with stories around the campfire - hearing the story of our salvation history told again, chanting psalms between each lesson... And of course, plenty of incense! (-: I hope someday we can try an outside fire; it's always been a possibility. And I hope someday you can hold that gonzo vigil with full-immersion baptism, because that would be just what it should be.

  4. While it may be true that the church and church people never tire of trying to tame Jesus and saints like Francis, and it is quite likely that Orthodox Easter Vigil services are wonderful and amazing (I've never attended), your sour take on Easter Vigil services left a very bad after-Easter taste in my mouth. Our Easter Vigil service was lovely and moving, but, no doubt, you would have found fault had you been there.

  5. The absolutely most powerful Easter Vigil I ever attended was with Coptics atop the roof of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. Many of the congregation were all dressed in white. We were all holding giant yard-stick long tapers. Drumming and dancing began and the procession around the roof-top dome began. Brilliant multi-colored umbrellas (common among the Copts) were carried by many - despite the fact that it was in the middle of the night. The procession seemed to go on forever, then retreated into a large tent erected on the roof.

    Of course this had been preceded by the Holy Fire service in the church earlier in the day. That is by far the most exhilarating experience of the resurrection I have ever had. In the midst of the distribution of the Holy Fire throughout the crowd of thousands I could actually feel the 'fear' of the resurrection - with fire all around from tapers of 33 candles bundled together.

    He is risen indeed.

  6. June, I said quite clearly in this post that there are fine Vigils out there in the Episcopal Church. There's lots of great worship in the Episcopal Church (I'm an Episcopalian, after all, and quite enjoy being one). There's also a lot of terrible liturgy out there, and I was just reflecting on my own personal experience. My reflection on my experience doesn't impugn anyone else's. Happy Easter!

  7. I'm all for gonzo, crazy Easter Vigils. My campus ministry regularly uses a pyrophone (cardboard tubes doused on the end with kerosene) and plays John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" underneath the Exultet. My home parish starts in darkness and uses a sizable fire to light the paschal candle. Worship like this helped open my heart to hear Christ's invitation to join his Body.

  8. I invite you to the Easter Vigil at Grace Church in Middletown, NY. We're not perfect--there's a hibachi in the back of the church (God, how I wish we started outside with a bonfire), and we have parafin candles with drip protectors (God, I'd really like beeswax yard-long candles), but I know when Christ is risen, because, well, someone says, "CHRIST IS RISEN, ALLELUIA!!!" and then the environment in the church changes. It's wonderful and glorious and we really do experience the Resurrection. We aren't perfect, but we get the essentials right. Come join us next year, you'd be most welcome!

  9. I don't want to hear anyone complaining about how the best they can get is Pentecost when the worst I can get is Ash Wednesday.


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