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.
Associate Professor of Church History, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Photo by Scott Carnes in France