Whatever the weather, on this last Saturday in March, Rev. Jennifer Marlor plans to keep watch with her flock by night.
Marlor and her parishioners from Gloria Dei Lutheran Church will gather with Lutherans from three other city churches for an Easter vigil, traditionally held on the Saturday between the Christian holidays of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
"You get this overview (of the Christian story) and the celebration of why we believe what we believe," Marlor says of the 8 p.m. service at Lutheran Church of the Cross, 560 Arlington St.
"It's almost a surreal experience. You're hearing these words that have been sung for hundreds of years. You feel it is something bigger than yourself."
Stretching back to the earliest days of Christianity, the Easter vigil, sometimes called the Great Easter vigil, is a service some consider the most important in the Christian calendar.
"It's is the highest, holiest service of the year," explains Rev. Paul Johnson, dean of St. John's Anglican Cathedral. "We are Easter people."
Easter is the first day of the Christian calendar and marks the day Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead after his crucifixion on Good Friday.
Celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and other denominations with strong liturgical traditions, the Easter vigil typically begins after dark on Saturday night with a bonfire on church property. Worshippers light candles from the fire and then move inside to a dark sanctuary for a service of readings, chants and music. In addition to the liturgy, the service includes communion and baptisms.
"You hear the old story from creation through deliverance of the Israelites, you hear the story of salvation freely offered to all through the prophet Isaiah," says Marlor, who will chant the liturgy at the Lutheran service.
"That's the gift of the ancient liturgies," adds Rev. Kolleen Karlowsky-Clark, pastor at Church of the Cross.
"Some parts of it are as ancient as the Hebrews and some parts (date back) to the early Christians."
This Saturday-night vigil marks the conclusion of a three-day worship experience, which begins includes services on Maundy Thursday and continues with the Good Friday service, explains Rev. D. Ward Jamieson of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral.
"It's like a three-act play and the whole thing is important," he says. "To get this entire message, you need to be at all three."
Jamieson says about 300 faithful gather at the downtown cathedral for the Easter vigil, to be led by Archbishop James Weisgerber, while the 800-seat cathedral is usually filled to capacity for the two Easter Sunday masses.
For Marlor, this once-a-year Saturday-night service has a dual purpose, marking the beginning of the Easter celebration and telling the whole Christian story, all in the space of a couple of hours.
"If a person didn't have a faith background, it would be a place to hear the story, a place of celebration," she says.
IF Easter seems early this year, there's a good, but complicated reason. As one of the moveable Christian feasts, Easter occurs any time between March 22 and April 25, depending on a combination of ancient traditions, theological decisions and some astronomical calculations.
In the year 325, church officials decided Christians would celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, the date of Jewish Passover. To keep the date uniform across the time zones, church officials agreed to use March 20 as the equinox. Astronomers calculated the dates of Easter centuries ahead, approximating the full moon to occur 14 days after the new moon.
Fast-forward a dozen centuries, when the Julian calendar was reformed to a standard 365 days under Pope Gregory XIII, who also removed 10 days in October to keep the calendar aligned to the seasons. Most of the world now follows the Gregorian calendar, but Orthodox Christians and some Eastern rite Catholics remained with the Julian calendar. They will celebrate Easter on Sunday, May 5. In 2014, the two traditions converge and all Christians will celebrate Easter on April 20.
Sources: www.catholicism.about.com, www.christianity.about.com,
Astronomical Society of South Australia, http://www.assa.org.au/edm#Method
Another sort of vigil
INSTEAD of gathering around a fire in the darkness of night, a group of Christians plans to meet midday Saturday near an oil pipeline for another type of Easter vigil.
The Holy Saturday service near the Enbridge pumping station in Gretna is meant to express solidarity with fellow Christians over the intrusion of a pipeline near a spiritual retreat centre in southern Michigan.
"It will be a liturgical service to lament the complicated reality of oil in our lives," explains Will Braun of Morden, one of the organizers of the event.
The 1 p.m. vigil includes music by former opera singer Terry Mierau, who farms near Gretna, a message from aboriginal leaders affected by the pipeline and the planting of a large cross.
The event concludes with a bonfire in nearby Neubergthal.
For more information, call 204-942-1058 or visit www.geezmagazine.org/pipeline_lament.