A Family Easter Vigil: Refocusing the Holiday on Jesus

HOLY WEEK: The third in the annual Holy Week series from the Pray Channel.

If you’re disheartened by the attention given to bunnies at Easter, you should consider the ancient tradition of the Easter Vigil, the original highpoint of the entire Church calendar. It’s really a Christian Passover, dating back to the second century, including four to twelve Old Testament readings reminding us of God’s saving work since Adam and Eve. Despite the vigil’s retelling of the ongoing story of Scripture, many churches other than Catholic and Orthodox don’t practice it. Fortunately, my family has experienced the vigil at one Anglican church where artists had created hanging mobiles for each reading, members read dramatically, and at one crucial point a bag piper piped in the balcony.

When learning our new church didn’t offer the vigil last year, I abbreviated the service from the Book of Common Prayer 1979, making it more interactive for our little girls. This year, I’ve added context to help them understand better.  The vigil is traditionally celebrated late Holy Saturday.  Rather than rely on midnight to be our boundary to begin our Easter holiday, we made their bedtime the demarcation and began the vigil after dinner.  An important part of the vigil besides the Scripture readings is the reading ofor singing the Exsultet , an early medieval hymn, of which I included a portion. Another feature of the vigil is the “lighting of the new fire,” perhaps begun by Saint Patrick one Easter Vigil in defiance of a pagan king.

A few days before or earlier, create a colorful banner with Alleluia written on it and “bury it” in a drawer or a bookshelf to be pulled out at the end of the vigil. Tell the children that they will shout “Alleluia!” at the end of the vigil but must avoid saying it until then. Distribute bells for the children to ring to celebrate that Christ is risen but ask them to refrain also until the very end. Prepare some music to play, some dancing ribbons, and a special dessert. I’ve included traditional readings from Scripture, but for younger children you may prefer reading out of a storybook Bible, such as the one I reference, The Jesus Storybook Bible, retold by Sally Lloyd-Jones.  Using The Jesus Storybook Bible, I’ve timed this vigil to be 20 to 25 minutes—the length of a children’s TV program–before the celebration at the end.

Light the candle and pass it to each other. The person holding it says,

“The light of Christ.”

As each family member receives it, everyone says,

“Thanks be to God.”

After the candle has been passed, the last person sets it in the middle of the table. A parent reads,

Yesterday was Good Friday, the day we remembered that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Tonight, we think of His death and His resurrection, His coming to back to life, so that we can celebrate Easter tomorrow morning. We’re going to read four stories from the Bible. Be ready for me to ask you a question after each one.

Then a parent or older child reads this portion from the Exsultet,

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered
from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,
and rose victorious from the grave.
How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God,
is your mercy and loving-kindness to us,
that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.


Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption.

At the beginning of the Bible we read the story of creation, when God made the earth and all the creatures in it, including people, beginning with Adam and Eve. Do you remember what God called all His creation? [He called it good.]

Even though it was good, God’s people went their way instead of God’s way.  That is sin. The earth was affected by sin, and life is often hard and sometimes people cry. God chose a man called Abraham to obey him and promised him that he would have a great family of people who someday would have their own land.

Read Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac , Genesis 22:1-18, or “The Present” from The Jesus Storybook Bible.

After God rescued Abraham’s son and provided a ram instead, what did He promise Abraham? [Through his descendants—his relatives a long time later–everybody on earth would be blessed.  They would know God and the world as good again.]

Who do you think God would someday send to bless everyone? [Jesus, God’s Son]

Even after Abraham, God’s creation was still a hard place because of the effects of sin. Eventually God’s people become slaves to the Egyptians and needed a rescuer.

Read about Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, Exodus 14:10—15:1, or “God Makes a Way” from The Jesus Storybook Bible.

After God’s people left Egypt, the Egyptians chased them, but what did God do? [He rescued them.]

He was still keeping his promise to take them into their own land.

Later, God’s people would again go their own way instead of God’s way. God sent His Son Jesus to rescue them, and He died on the cross. If He died on the cross—if He’s dead–how do we know He is able to save us from our sins? [Because He came back to life—but the answer can be the following story]

Read about the women at the Tomb, Matthew 28:1-10, or “God’s Wonderful Surprise” from The Jesus Storybook Bible.

So, how do we know that our Savior Jesus is able to save us? [He came back to life]

Because Jesus came back to life, we can be confident that someday God’s world will be new, entirely good, again. We read in both the Old and New Testament that the whole earth will be the new land that God promised.

Read about the gathering of God’s people, Zephaniah 3:12-20, or “A Dream of Heaven” from The Jesus Storybook Bible.

What will the future be like? [There will be no more going our way instead of God’s way; God’s people will be kind to one another, together, happy, and confident in God’s love.]

This is a promise for us, now and in the future, because of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection.

Let us pray.     (Silence)

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light:
Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery;
by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation;
let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up,
and things which had grown old are being made new,
and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now we can say “Alleluia” again!

Parent: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Family: The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Play music, and parade around the house streaming the dancing ribbons. When someone shouts “Alleluia!” everyone should ring bells. Recover the Alleluia banner and hang it. Have a special dessert.

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