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Of all Christian celebrations of the events of Christ's life, our modern Easter traditions have perhaps strayed farthest from the ways the early church marked the day—or rather, the days, for they saw Holy Week, and especially its holiest hours from Thursday night to Sunday morning, as an indivisible unit. The New Testament makes clear that early Christians began to meet on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7,11) to "break bread" and celebrate Jesus' resurrection. But though every Sunday was thus a "little Easter," the early church also drew attention to the events of Jesus' last days through what they called the Pascha (taken from the Hebrew word for Passover, and held at the same time of the year). They read Scripture and celebrated the Eucharist to commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry, Last Supper, betrayal, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 may be a New Testament reference to this festival, and it was certainly being celebrated by the second century, when controversy arose as to whether it should be commemorated on a Sunday or on the date of Passover itself.
Because Paul had described baptism with the imagery of death and resurrection (Romans 6:4-5), the time surrounding Pascha became associated with the baptism of new converts. Tertullian's treatise on baptism (ca. 200) mentions Passover as the most appropriate time for this sacrament. The famous third-century liturgical document The Apostolic Tradition is one of our earliest descriptions of a period of fasting on the Friday and Saturday before Easter, culminating in an all-night vigil on Saturday evening. (In addition to emphasizing a symbolic movement from darkness to light, the vigil took over the idea from Judaism that the religious day begins at sundown.) That night, new Christians were baptized, anointed with oil, and received their first Communion with the community. The inscription on the Lateran baptistery in Rome, which dates from a century or two later, expresses the mood of this celebration: "Sinner, sink beneath this sacred surf that swallows age and spits up youth. Sinner, they know no enmity who are by one font, one Spirit, one faith made one. Sinner, shudder not at sin's kind and number, for those born here are holy."
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Fire, Water, and a Risen Savior: The Great Vigil of Easter
Returning from this morning's pre-baptism instruction and rehearsal in preparation for tonight's Easter Vigil, I came across an interesting article from Christianity Today. Written by Jennifer Woodruff Tait, adjunct professor of church history at Asbury Theological Seminary, it describes the practice of the Vigil in the early Church, its fall into disuse in the wake of the Reformation, and its revival in the wake of the liturgical renewal movement. Here's a teaser: