Until I entered the Jesuit novitiate at age 28, I had never attended an Easter Vigil.When I was a boy, it seemed to me that every year, at the morning Mass on Easter Sunday, we read the wrong Gospel passage. Usually the story took place a long time after the resurrection. I couldn’t figure out why we didn’t hear the part about the angel saying, He is not here!
One Easter Sunday, leafing through the Missalette, I came across the passage I was searching for, from the Gospel of Luke. It was read at something called the Easter Vigil. But as my family didn’t cotton to late-night Masses, I was left to imagine what that service might be like.
From reading the Missalette I learned that adults were baptized at that Mass, but wondered how anyone over the age of two could fit into the little marble font in our church. And I had once seen a television program where a Protestant congregation gathered around a cross at dawn on a hillside somewhere. Perhaps the Vigil was something like that.
As a Jesuit novice, however, I was sent to Kingston, Jamaica, for four monthsfrom February to May. There Bill, my novitiate classmate, and I worked in a variety of ministries with the poor. At Easter, Bill and I were invited to the Vigil Mass at a local Jesuit-run church.
We joined the rest of the parish in a courtyard outside the church for the lighting of the Easter fire, gathering on a cool night around a small trash can filled with wood. When the pastor lit the fire and the deacon, a young American Jesuit with a beautiful voice, sang out the first clear notes of the Exsultet, I was completely bowled over. This was the Catholic Church? How wonderful! Why hadn’t I done this before?
Since then I have tried never to miss the Vigil. During a two-year stay in Kenya, I spent both vigils at the chapel at Hekima College, the theology school run by the Jesuits in Nairobi. On a warm night in the first year, we gathered, as we had in Kingston, around a trash can.
That year, however, a far larger trash can was packed full of sticks and kindling. On this huge pile the pastor poured a substantial amount of kerosene. When the wood was lit, a towering fire leapt up, and as a strong wind blew, menacing flames licked at the crowd, who cowered back with each gust. In the face of this conflagration, the poor priest was unable to get close enough to light his taper. Eventually the slim taper melted from the overpowering heat. Finally someone handed him a little candle and a match. After lighting that, he lit the large Easter candle, and everyone laughed. Exsultet!
A few years ago, I participated in the Vigil as a deacon at a Jesuit church here in New York. The Easter candle, which I was assigned to carry during the procession, was huge: a four-foot tall wax log. During the rehearsal on Holy Saturday afternoon, I hefted it with ease. But in the evening the situation was different. I hadn’t counted on my new alb getting in the way, nor on my hands growing damp with nerves. At each chanting of Light of Christ! the candle seemed to grow heavier, and when I dunked it into the baptismal font (three times, very slowly) it nearly slipped from my hands.
Finally I climbed onto a step, placed it into a six-foot candlestick and felt it settle satisfyingly in place. I took my place on a bench in the sanctuary next to another Jesuit, just ordained, who had served as deacon the prior year. He leaned over and whispered, I hate that stupid candle.
Every Easter I remember my wonder at that first Vigil in Kingston. I remember the laughter over the melting taper in Nairobi. I remember with some amusement the wax log. I marvel at the beauty of the liturgythe readings, the music, the ritual. And I never tire of hearing the Gospel story I had searched for when I was young: Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!