On Keeping Vigil

Fr. Christopher Foley

Christian Liturgy publicly feasts the mystery of our salvation already accomplished in Christ, thanking and glorifying God for it so that it might be intensified in us and communicated to others for the building up of the Church, to perpetual glory of God's Holy Name.

Robert Taft

What is unique about our worship? Why is it so important for us to participate in the liturgical life of the Church? If Robert Taft is correct, then there is something that happens when we enter into the feasts of the Church. There is something that we enter into and are changed as a result. This “something” is an experience of Christ Himself. As we are about to celebrate our patronal feast, it is important for us to be reminded about why our participation is so vital to our spiritual lives.

One of the distinguishing characteristics about Orthodox liturgical worship is its preparation and fulfillment. Every feast has a prefeast, or a time leading up to the feast. Then we have the feast itself, and then the leave-taking , or the conclusion of the feast. This is seen most poignantly in the Vigil of the feast and the feast day Divine Liturgy itself. In the Orthodox Church every Eucharistic liturgy, strictly speaking, should be preceded by vigil and prayer. A vigil consists in our "keeping watch" as the disciples did in the upper room awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Early Christians spent the whole night in preparation awaiting the coming of the risen Lord. This was a unique phenomenon in Christianity. Fr. John Ealy expresses this important component in Orthodox Christian worship: "The word vigil itself comes to us from the Latin military term it means a state of alarm and of mobilization. It became connected with the night. It became a negation of that which the natural world did. The world slept but the Christian did not do what others naturally did. The Christian was awake and waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom who comes in the middle of the night (See Matthew 25:1-13). While all go to sleep the Church gathers and watches and waits for the coming of the Bridegroom, Christ. All this at night because night is spent in expectation, while others are asleep and weak. The Christian becomes a partaker of a life not dependent upon this world and death.

“The life of a Christian is the new life of Christ, the Bridegroom, the life that will be experienced in the Eucharist. Christians spend that time which precedes the Eucharist in prayer and expectation. What the Christian does in vigil points to the future. It points to the coming of Christ in the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy, but it also points to the time of the future when Christ will come again in all His glory, in His second coming. This is already experienced here and now in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the experience now of that which is to come. Our vigil of expectation is fulfilled in the Eucharist. That fulfillment is always Christ, being with Him at the table in His Kingdom in the Divine Liturgy. There can be no vigil without the Eucharist and no Eucharist without a vigil."

Clearly our personal preparation encompasses a part of this vigil-keeping, but in our liturgical tradition, there is always a Vigil service on the eve of any major feast as well as on Saturday evenings. In many places the Vigil has been reduced to Great Vespers, or fallen into disuse entirely.

The Vigil, or sometimes called the All-Night Vigil, consists of the combination of Vespers and Matins into one service. The combination of these two services brings us from the night into the day. It is the Light of Christ that begins to dawn in our hearts as the darkness dissipates. It is at this service that the "meat" of the feast is heard in the hymns. This is where we begin to participate in the Life-giving events of our salvation. This is exactly where we, as the body of Christ, come together to prepare to meet Christ Himself in the feast. It is our preparation together, or vigil, that the experience of the feast becomes more intensified and communicated to us in a deeper way. We don't come to Church to fulfill an obligation, or to say "we went to church today." It is much more than that. We come to Church to participate in Christ Himself, who is our Life. It is our secularism that somehow manages to convince us that these are optional if it "fits into my schedule." It is secularism that makes us think that even by going to Church we have fulfilled our religious obligation. We cannot accept this premise as Orthodox Christians. All these things are given to us for our salvation. Legalism should never be the issue when it comes to Church attendance and participation in the services. Christ desires that we be "true worshipers" who "worship Him in spirit and truth" (John 4:23).

We will be celebrating the Vigil of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-creating Cross of our Lord on September 13. I would encourage everyone who can to come so that together we may enter into the feast. This is our patronal feast. Our Bishop has given us this feast as our name. This means that we will always in some way draw our identity from it. The feast is a wonderful one. We celebrate the Cross of our Lord. We feast Christ Himself and the salvation won for us on that cross. And because of this, our own “crosses,” our daily trials, now have the potential to bring us to Christ who is our Life. The hymns are full of joy and exuberance over the Cross as a “token of victory,” a “weapon of peace.” By spending some time with the texts from this service before attending, our ears and hearts will be better attuned to the message of the feast. You can find them at: http://oca.org/Mdtexts.asp?SID=13.

Scroll down to September 14th to download the texts and try to incorporate them into your own prayers and meditation this month.

Here are a few selections from the Vigil service:

Let all the trees of the wood rejoice, for their nature is sanctified by Christ. He planted them in the beginning, and on a tree was outstretched. At its exaltation on this day, we worship Him and magnify you.

The cross is raised up as a sacred horn of strength to all God's people, whose foreheads are marked with it. By this, all the horns of the spiritual powers of wickedness are crushed. At its exaltation on this day, we worship Him and magnify you.

Not allowing the deadly bitterness of the tree to remain, Thou didst utterly destroy it with the cross, as of old the wood once destroyed the bitterness of the waters of Marah, prefiguring the strength of the cross which all the powers of heaven magnify.

Today Thou hast raised us up again through the cross, O Lord. For we were plunged forever into the gloom of our forefather, unrestrained greed thrust our nature down into delusion: but now we have been restored to our full inheritance by the light of Thy cross which we faithful magnify.

Today the death that came to mankind through eating of the tree, is made of no effect through the cross. For the curse of our mother Eve that fell on mankind is destroyed by the fruit of the pure Mother of God whom all the powers of heaven magnify.

The Cross is the guardian of the whole earth; the Cross is the beauty of the Church. The Cross is the strength of kings; the Cross is the support of the faithful. The Cross is the glory of angels, and the wonder of demons.

The degree to which we are able to spend time personally preparing for the feast will be the degree to which we will be able to experience the joy of the feast. It all takes work, but it is important to remember that the word liturgy itself has a connotation of a corporate work done together for a purpose, and what greater purpose than the glorification of God. We can even attend the services, but never really come to Liturgy because we are not Liturgizing, we are not working to offer a sacrifice of praise. Let us remember how important it is to have a vision of why we do what we do, and work hard to make this a reality in our lives. We come to Vigil, and Great Vespers, in order to prepare ourselves for the Eucharist, for Christ as the "coming one" will rise in our hearts as we partake of Him in the Eucharist. We are then filled with the joy of the Kingdom and bring Him into this world to share with others the joy of the feast. “Rejoice, O Life-bearing cross!”

Today the Cross is exalted and the world is sanctified. For Thou who art enthroned with the Father and the Holy Spirit, hast spread Thine arms upon it and drawn the world to knowledge of Thee, O Christ. Make worthy of divine glory those who have put their trust in Thee.