I’m about to start a composition, and as always, there’s a problem: I don’t know what to say. It is now the beginning of Lent, which only reinforces the state I’m always in. There are many lessons Lent can teach me, and I hope to learn those better this year, but for now, in this unsettled state before starting a piece, I confess that my mind jumps ahead to the end of Lent, to the strangest liturgy of the Church Year: Easter Vigil. There is nothing remotely like the Vigil.
In liturgy, sundown is already the next day. The crucifixion hovers over Saturday’s Vigil, but Easter is already beginning.
Of the many Vigil readings, one is from Daniel. Babylon had removed the best and brightest from Israel and took them back as spoils of war. Daniel and his friends rose so high that King Nebuchadnezzar had them run parts of his government. But jealous Babylonians dropped the dime on them when they wouldn’t toe the party line.
What Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego said to Nebuchadnezzar was remarkable. They said their God could rescue them, but “even if he does not”—that’s the remarkable part—they wouldn’t bow down to a statue.
So he threw them into a furnace. But when he saw them walking around inside and talking to a fourth person, he called to them to come out. They came out. Their clothes and hair weren’t singed, and—I would never have thought of this if I were making it up—there was no smell of fire on them. God rescued them, but the “even if he does not” part, now unnecessary, stayed in the story.
After the execution of Jesus, women discovered he wasn’t in the tomb. Not the men of the inner circle—they didn’t discover the empty tomb, the women did. The men who wrote it all down didn’t believe them but kept their disbelief in the story. If I were making it up, I wouldn’t have done that.
At Vigil, a fire is lit, often outside. Each person, bringing the fire in by candle, enters the dark nave, each bright face floating into the struggling-to-be-seen church. “The Light of Christ” is intoned. “Thanks be to God,” answer the faces.
Someone walks to the lectern to sing the Exsultet, in all Christendom one of the greatest hymns of praise ever devised. It isn’t an important person, not a pastor, priest, bishop. Traditionally, the lowest-level cleric, the deacon, sings the Exsultet. Our church doesn’t have deacons, but it does have cantors. I’m a cantor, so the job of chanting the Exsultet falls to me:
To all angels, rejoice. To every created thing, rejoice. To all around the world, rejoice. To all gathered here, rejoice. This is the night we must pass through to rejoice. This is the night where all sacriﬁce ends. This is the night that turns clear as day. This is the night, this is the night, this is the night…
Ancient and mystical, weirdly involving, it’s a rambling chant, not scripture, but echoes of scripture. One form praises candles, “the work of bees and your servants’ hands.” I would never have said it this way, but suspended between Friday and Sunday, in the dark, in a Vigil, not knowing what to say, I am handed a candle, and I see—all around me, among the floating, light-reflecting faces—angels, the children of Israel, all people, all creation.
I don’t yet know what to say in this new composition, but this is what I’ve learned: I won’t make things up. I’ll write what I see, I’ll tell the truth, “when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human. When all wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away. How holy is this night when innocence is restored to the fallen and joy is given to those downcast.”