The Easter Vigil

Meet Dr. Jim Papandrea

Dr. Papandrea is an assistant professor of Church History at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary He is also an accomplished musician and brings Church History to life as a storyteller in the classroom.  He received his BA from the University of Minnesota, his Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, earned a certificate in Classiscal studies at the American Academy in Rome, and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University.  I now welcome Dr. Jim Papandrea to my blog!

Think back to some of the parables Jesus told – parables about waiting, and watching. In the parable of the ten bridesmaids, for example (Matthew, chapter 25), the wise bridesmaids were the ones who kept their lamps burning through the night, and were ready for the return of the groom. The foolish bridesmaids were the ones who fell asleep, and let their lamps go out. In parables like this one, Jesus is teaching about his own return, the so-called second coming, and encouraging all of his followers to live in readiness, and in anticipation of the time when the Groom would return to claim his bride, the Church.

This concept of watching and waiting is embodied liturgically in the vigil service. Based on the Jewish tradition that a new day begins at sundown, the first worship services for a Sunday can actually be held Saturday night. There’s something special about an evening service – coming to the close of the day, with the sky darkening to twilight – it can heighten the sense of mystery in worship. And the liturgy that is arguably the most sacred and mystical is the Easter Vigil. This is an ancient tradition in which the first celebration of Easter begins late the night before, on Holy Saturday.

But the Easter Vigil doesn’t start out with celebration. It actually begins in darkness, with a small light, that expands to many candles, including the lighting of a new paschal (Easter) candle, and finally to the brightness of Easter. An Easter Vigil can last three or four hours, beginning in the late evening on Holy Saturday, and ending around midnight. It’s long, in part because there are many Scripture readings, telling the whole story of salvation history, from creation to redemption. By the time the vigil ends, the assembly has moved from the mourning of Jesus in the tomb to the joy of resurrection (Psalm 30:11).

The Easter Vigil also includes baptisms. In the ancient rite, that still continues in some traditions, adults who wish to be baptized and join the church community have been going through a catechism class, in preparation for their initiation into the Christian life. They have been waiting, waiting until Easter, when they are “born again” in the waters of baptism. And with them, the whole congregation renews their baptismal/confirmation commitment to Christ and his Church. So the Easter Vigil is an opportunity for the Church, the bride of Christ, to renew her wedding vows to her Groom. It’s an opportunity for every believer to experience a fresh start, to turn over a new leaf (an image that goes nicely with spring!). In the ancient Church, the concept of conversion was not thought of as a one-time decision, it was seen as an ongoing process, and the yearly tradition of the Easter Vigil was everyone’s chance to be converted again, through the renewal of their baptismal vows and through the recitation of the Church’s historic creeds.

The Easter Vigil symbolizes the time of waiting. On one level, it’s the time between Friday and Sunday – when Jesus was crucified and was in the tomb, and his disciples waited for the resurrection. On another level, it’s the time between his first advent and his second coming – when we wait for his promised return. It symbolizes – and it allows us to experience – that very moment when the Church goes from mourning into joy, from darkness into light.

Whether you celebrate Easter by attending an Easter Vigil, or the traditional Sunrise Service, or the big main service with all the trumpets, don’t let this Easter go by without making a conscious effort to rededicate yourself to Christ and his Church. As you wait for him, he is waiting for you, and he wants to give you a fresh start – no matter what the past year has been like for you.

Jim Papandrea
Associate Professor of Church History, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Photo by Scott Carnes in France
A Good Friday Devotion: The Weeping Women of Jerusalem

The Weeping Women: a Holy Week Devotion

Luke 23: 26-34 (CEB)
As they led Jesus away, they grabbed Simon, a man from Cyrene, who was coming in from the countryside. They put the cross on his back and made him carry it behind Jesus. A huge crowd of people followed Jesus, including women, who were mourning and wailing for him. Jesus turned to the women and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Rather, cry for yourselves and your children. The time will come when they will say, ‘Happy are those who are unable to become pregnant, the wombs that never gave birth, and the breasts that never nursed a child.’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ If they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

On Good Friday two thousand years ago Jesus was led through the streets of Jerusalem to his death upon a cross. As he walked crowds gathered. Yet amongst these crowds, his disciples, friends and family were nowhere to be seen. He was surrounded instead by strangers. Strangers who lined the roads. A stranger who was forced to carry the cross. A group of strange unnamed women from Jerusalem. These women came to mourn. They followed Christ to Golgotha wailing and beating their breasts. But who where these women? Why did they weep so? 
Perhaps news of Jesus had long ago reached these women. Perhaps they had heard the stories of Jesus and how he was willing to talk with, to touch, to heal, and to forgive other women just like themselves. Among them may have been women suffering from malnutrition and illness who struggled to support their growing families year after year and had heard of this man who gave strength and healing to Simon’-Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39). Some may have been destitute widows forced to bury their children, in need of hope; these women may have heard of some strange events that had occurred in the far away city of Nain (Luke 7:11-17).  Still others may have been outcasts, declared unclean because of some sort of gynecological problem, they would have yearned for a human touch that could heal their body and restore their honor (Luke 8:40-48). Whatever these women’s specific situations one thing is certain; they lived in dangerous times. These women, valued for their ability to bare children would risk death year-after-year as they labored in unsanitary conditions with few resources. They would watch sisters die in childbirth. They would bury their children. They would stay up nights wondering how they were to feed their families. They may have had little hope that their children’s lives would be any better then their own. 
The stories of Jesus may have reached them and given them hope. As he was led to his death, they may have seen this as their last chance to experience his healing touch. Strangely, when he encounters these women Jesus does not offer them healing. Instead he hears them cry for him and in turn laments their fate saying, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Rather, cry for yourselves and your children. The time will come when they will say, ‘Happy are those who are unable to become pregnant, the wombs that never gave birth, and the breasts that never nursed a child.’…” 
In the years following Jesus’ crucifixion the economy in Judea would continue to decline, Roman oppression would intensify and unrest would grow leading to an eventual revolt: that Jewish revolt would be crushed, the temple destroyed and the people sent into exile. Jesus may have foreseen such events when speaking to the women. He knew that any life they would bring into the world would likely know only suffering and death. Women at that time were forced to bare children year after year whom they could not support. They were forced to raise children who would only know war. Jesus spoke these words to the women, declaring that no woman should have to struggle to feed ever growing families. Jesus spoke these words to the women, declaring that no women should have to give birth to children which she will be forced to bury. Jesus spoke these words to the women, declaring that no woman should have die simply so another could know life.
On Good Friday two thousand years ago, Jesus died that we might live. On his way to that death he spoke to the women of Jerusalem who followed him to the cross. Now, two thousand years later women are still mourning and wailing. Now, two thousand years after Christ’s crucifixion women are still going to the cross; dying that others may live. Every year, 4 million children die within a month of birth. Every two minutes somewhere in the world, a woman dies of compilations during pregnancy or childbirth. These deaths are largely preventable. In Christ’s name, we can offer these weeping woman a healing touch, simply by ensuring they have control over their own bodies. When a woman delays pregnancy at least two years after the birth of her last child, she is much more likely to have a healthy pregnancy and birth. When women can control the timing and spacing of their children, they can better ensure the health of each child.
This Good Friday, let us listen to the cries of women. Let us share the hope Jesus offered so many of the women he encountered: opportunities for strength and healing, access to medical care and family planning, and hope that their children’s lives will be better than their own. By helping women control the timing and spacing of pregnancy we can honor the women of Jerusalem. By ensuring that women who want it have access to the methods that will help them control the timing and spacing of their pregnancies we can honor Christ’s life and death. 
Quick Facts about Maternal Health


  • Globally, every two minutes a woman dies due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth.
  • Nearly all of the 287, 000 maternal deaths each year occur in the developing world.
  • Annually 4 million infants die within a month of being born. When a mother dies, it dramatically increases the risk of death for her baby.
  • Women account for nearly half of all people living with HIV and are disproportionately affected by new infections. This could be reduced if women and men had access to contraception.
  • When a woman delays pregnancy at least two years after the birth of her last child, she is much more likely to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.
  • Healthy mothers have healthy babies. Spacing children lowers the risk of infant mortality. Unmet need for family planning affects many women and families.
  • Worldwide there are more than 222 million women who would like to avoid pregnancy but lack a family planning method.
  • As a result, there are more than 80 million unintended pregnancies each year. More than half result in abortion, many of them under illegal and unsafe conditions.
  • Investing in family planning reduces unintended pregnancy and increases health for women and children.