The Vigil of Pentecost
Originally published in 2015, slight edits have been made.
“This is the night.”
Eastertide is dramatically ushered in with the kindling of the new fire, the lighting of the Paschal Candle, and the Exsultet proclaiming that this is indeed the night of salvation through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Easter Vigil is rich in mystagogical ceremony. Themes of darkness into light, the readings of the ancient prophecies, and the blessing of the baptismal font point not only to Christ’s Resurrection, but our inclusion in this mystery that brings us from darkness to light and from spiritual death to spiritual life. Even though the Easter Vigil is not widely attended by the laity in the majority of parishes in the Episcopal Church (or even observed in many parishes) it is still the climax of the Church Year.
The beginning of Eastertide is clear. When Eastertide ends has been another matter. On one hand, that statement is absurd. Eastertide is fifty days and thus ends on the fiftieth day. But on the other hand certain traditions, such as extinguishing the Paschal Candle on the Feast of the Ascension and the observance of an octave after Pentecost has the real potential of inserting confusion as to when Easter actually ends. For instance, if Eastertide begins with the kindling of the new fire and the lighting of the Paschal Candle, does it end when that candle, which has burned the whole season, is extinguished? If Eastertide ends on the Feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, is it still Eastertide during the octave of Pentecost?
Paul Bradshaw notes that this tension is not new and that in the 4th century, some places celebrated Ascension and Pentecost together on the fiftieth day. Presumably this makes the issue of when one extinguishes the Paschal Candle (if it was used) moot.[i] A century later, a separate celebration for the feast of Ascension emerged on the fortieth day and “thus the original unity of the fifty-day season was gradually broken down.”[ii]
This gradual loss of unity is important and has resulted in the diminishment of the celebration of Pentecost and its baptismal character. St Augustine is said to have preached “See how the solemnity of the Pasch has reached its conclusion without losing any of its splendor. The Pasch is the beginning of grace, Pentecost is the crown.”[iii] Pentecost is the second greatest feast in the Church Year, but I would doubt that the laity would see it as such. For that matter, I doubt many priests would see it as such. In many places Pentecost has been reduced to an occasion for the laity to wear red, release balloons of the same color, and have picnics. The birth of the Church is marked by cake and not the Paraclete. This hasn’t always been the case and there is no reason why it should continue. For Episcopal Churches, the true nature and celebration of Pentecost can be recovered in part by the recovery of the Pentecost Vigil. Recovering the Vigil would not only recover Pentecost as a major feast but would also repair the break in Eastertide’s unity.
The Vigil of Pentecost
Gregory DiPippo, in an excellent work on the Holy Week reforms of Pius XII, mentions the development of the Pentecost as day of baptism that evolved to mirror the rites of the Easter, including the vigil.[iv] The Pentecost Vigil did not include the lighting a new fire or blessing of the Paschal Candle, but there was a shortened reading of the prophecies (six instead of twelve) and the blessing of the font with the litany.
The 9th Edition of Ritual Notes, which must be mentioned as the inspiration for this blog, includes the Pentecost Vigil. The “Naughty Ninth” gives instructions for the reading of the prophecies in a way that was similar to the Easter Vigil, the lighting of the Paschal Candle, and the blessing of the font.[v] The 11th Edition, reflecting the Pian reforms, does not.
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer not only restored the Easter Vigil but it also provided a very loose framework for the Pentecost Vigil on pages 175 and 227. A full liturgy is not provided nor is the celebration of the vigil expected (“When a Vigil of Pentecost is observed..”).[vi] The few rubrics that are given direct the celebration to begin with the Service of Light on page 109 followed by three or more readings appointed for the day. Instead of a collect to follow each reading, as in the Easter Vigil, a psalm, canticle, or hymn is to follow. Nine readings are provided for the Easter Vigil prophecies, but only seven readings total are given for the entire Pentecost Vigil. Presumably, the first four are for the prophecies. The old Roman Rite (and the 9th Edition of Ritual Notes) directs the 3rd, 4th, 11th, 8th, 6th, and 7th Easter Vigil prophecies to be read at the Pentecost Vigil. Only the 8th 1979 Prayer Book Easter Vigil prophecy (Ezekiel 37:1-14) is included in the Pentecost Vigil readings. After the prophecies, the Prayer Book directs that Baptism, Confirmation, or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows is to follow the sermon. This is the extent of the Pentecost Vigil in the Prayer Book. This is also the extent of my experience of the Pentecost Vigil. Before 2015, I had not attended or celebrated a Pentecost Vigil. What does, or rather what should, the Vigil look like?
A Reflection on The Pentecost Vigil in the Parish
We began the liturgy with the Easter acclamation followed a blessing of light composed by Canon Jeremy Haselock, one of the primary authors of Times and Seasons in Common Worship. This was important as the liturgy needs a blessing of light that is more robust than an ordinary luncinarium, as the Pentecost Vigil is no ordinary service of evening prayer. However, to ensure the liturgy is a Prayer Book liturgy, and this is important for us, we also used one of the Prayers for Light on page 110. After the blessing we lit the Paschal Candle from the flame of the sanctuary lamp and then from the Paschal Candle, we lit the candles on the altar and the hand candles of the people.
One practical question that emerged was how do we light the Paschal Candle? The New Fire had already been kindled at the Easter Vigil and to strike flint in a dramatic fashion would be too similar to what happened fifty nights earlier. Since the church is meant to be dark but Christ’s Sacramental Presence is not absent, as in the case for the Easter Vigil, we used the flame from the sanctuary lamp. Using the sanctuary lamp to kindle the Paschal Candle was a statement that Christ’s Sacramental Presence continues to enlighten us and, in fact, illuminates the life of the Church.
As the candles were lit, we sang the Gloria in Excelsis as permitted by the rubrics on page 175. We used the Pentecost introduction from Common Worship and the accompanying short litany. The Prayer Book collect for Pentecost followed next and then we continued with three prophecies accompanied by a psalm or canticle.
The Prayer Book does not have a formal rite for the blessing of the font but the blessing is implied in the Altar Book rubrics at the Easter Vigil. We blessed the font and baptismal water in the same way as at the Easter Vigil. After the Renewal of the Baptismal Vows, the people were sprinkled as the procession returned to the altar. From there the mass continued as usual with the Peace.
The Pentecost Vigil, as a near mirror of the Easter Vigil, is powerful. The same elements that are formative in the Easter Vigil are present for Pentecost. Of particular not, however, are the prophecies. We selected Genesis 11, Exodus 19 and Ezekiel 37: the Tower of Babel, the Giving of the Law, and the Valley of the Dry Bones, respectively. The Genesis reading was especially meaningful as Pentecost is the anti-Babel. Whereas God gave multiple languages to divide the people, the Holy Spirit gave the gift of tongues to unite His people. The Exodus reading brings to the giving of the Law. Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel prophesied of the giving of life to dead, dry bones. Pentecost is the realization of such a promise.
For a full observance of Eastertide and its power, and for a renewal of Pentecost as the second most important feast of the year, the Pentecost Vigil can also give new life to dry, dying bones.
[i] Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship, 85.
[iii] Roger Greenacre and Jeremy Haselock, The Sacrament of Easter, 153.
[v] Ritual Notes, 9th Edition, 180.
[vi] Book of Common Prayer (1979), 175.