This spiritual reality is made visible each year when the church around the world gathers to celebrate the Easter Vigil. In the darkness that precedes the dawn of Easter morning, the church celebrates its first communion all over again. Here we are reminded that in becoming one with the risen Christ we are made one with each other - Catholic and Protestant, conservative and liberal, progressive and evangelical - whether we like it or not. This is the reason that the ancient church’s name for the sacrament - “eucharist” (meaning “thanksgiving”) - is often replaced with the title “communion”. Like the words “common” and “community” it comes from the Latin root that means “as one”.
The genius of the Easter Vigil is its recognition that Easter Sunday begins long before the sunrise. We are accustomed to thinking of the day beginning when we awake or, at least, when the clock turns past the middle of the night. But in the world of the Bible the new day starts when the sun sets. This is the reason that the Sabbath always begins with an evening meal, not with morning worship. When I was first introduced to the practice of celebrating the Easter Vigil I assumed that it would be a somber service meant to keep reverent vigil through the night, waiting until Easter dawned to great fanfare. To my surprise I learned that the Easter Vigil is the first and - in my experience - the most joyous of the Easter celebrations. By adopting the practice of celebrating the Easter Vigil the church is reminded that the Resurrection occurs in the dark with no help or assistance from any of the disciples.
At the first communion of Easter we remember that the church is not a product of human planning but is a gift given by God. When the church is tempted to take credit for its apparent successes this Easter news offers the gracious gift of much needed humility. When the church is tempted to despair at the signs of its apparent demise this Easter news offers the longed for gift of a deeply rooted hope.
The Easter Vigil begins in the darkness after sunset. A fire is lit outside and, from it, a large Christ candle is lit. The celebrant chants: “The light of Christ” to which the congregation responds: “Thanks be to God”. All who are present light a taper from the Christ candle and the light is processed into the darkened sanctuary. This is a dramatic sign of God’s action to lighten our darkness and, in so doing, to make us one people. The biblical story is told in readings and hymns that carry us from Creation to Exodus to Exile to Jesus. Baptismal vows are renewed at the font. The table that is the ever-present sign of our unity is set so that the bread and wine can be shared. At University Hill Congregation the Vigil begins at 9:00 pm and concludes by 11:00 pm (ours is an abbreviated version of the service). Afterwards it is customary to linger, gathering together around a dining table spread with food to continue the celebration of the gift of our unity in Jesus Christ - “ut omnes unum sint” - a spiritual gift of light now made visible in the dark.
(from "Telling Time" by Edwin Searcy)