by Charles Wilson
“This was good. I liked this” the man said to me after we had our resurrected Easter Vigil. And the smile he had and the affirmation in his voice gave me my own smile and affirmation as we stood there on the front lawn of our parish church in Central Ohio.
The Vigil had been resurrected after a two-year hiatus. While for many years it had been for many their “favorite” service, in recent times attendance was becoming more and more sparse. So much so that for the choir, the organist, the readers and leaders, as well as the faithful Altar Guild, the Easter Vigil was becoming “work” rather than ministry. I had come to agree with them. Not even the “favorite” service folks were coming.
But not everyone agreed.
So after a year of having good on and off discussions around what the Vigil is meant for and could be for our community inside and outside our doors, we let it rest for a season or two.
When we took it up again we, the clergy, the organist, the choir, the readers and the leaders, and the Altar Guild began to re-think the “how” of the Easter Vigil so it was again an engaging liturgy and more ministry than work for all involved. One of the questions was how to move from “have to” to “want to”.
Our decision was to hold it out on the front lawn, use a fire pit for the Great Fire, and sit in a circle allowing us to hear and share the many stories from Scriptures and sing simply. All we needed to make it complete was a baptism!
It was good, if uncertain and anxious for all of us being out there on the front lawn exposed as Christians and practicing our faith! And the one who told me it was good was one of the big doubters.
Now, this story is not just about how one parish and its people chose to re-imagine how to usher in Easter. There were other components to this as well but I’d like to share one of the neatest parts of this experience.
For a long time in this parish, and, really, each of the parishes I served in, one of the burning questions was what to do with our stuff. Especially the stuff we were not using anymore, as well as the stuff we never had used but had been given as charitable cast-offs by members.
As the end of Lent approached and our plans for the outdoor Vigil took shape, I saw an answer to what to do with all this stuff. Burn it all in the Great Fire.
A question though for everyone then (and maybe for the reader, too) was, what kind of stuff were we talking about? Here are some examples: old candles, ancient palms hanging around, some of the two to three hundred vials of oil sitting there. Other items were seasonal bulletins buried in the back of cabinets, wreaths used once upon a time, broken craft materials from Sunday School, and on the list went.
All these were brought forth and used to start the new fire of Easter. Pretty powerful for me, and joyous for the Altar Guild to get rid of things that for one reason or another did not feel right to just “throw away”.
There were/are takeaways from this story. One is obviously that there is the possibility of life and changed perspective in unmasking customs as traditions. Customs are the current way communities seek to carry on traditions.
Another takeaway is the symbolism of the Great Fire of Easter, and the Resurrection of Christ “making all things new”. By handing over those things which were cluttering up or no longer useful, by pyrotechnically purging, a lesson in the meaning of Lent was taught. One of the issues I have with “working on myself” during Lent is, what do I do with all this stuff? Hand it over to Jesus. Duh. This action was a demonstration not only of what to do, but how to do it. For once it was gone into the flames of Easter, it was gone.
Along with that (as if that wasn’t powerful enough) is the simple pragmatism of clearing out space. With cleared out space, it was true that there was more room. More room to add, put in, and take on things that might have been laid aside, not started, or were plain suffocating underneath all that stuff. The question moved from where are we going to put that? To how can we make this fit?
Another way to put it is that by exhaling everything held inside, there was now room to breathe in new things. New life, new customs, new people – new Spirit. And in that, I think is the possibility of new movement.
As I write this we are fast heading (despite the valiant brake that is Advent) into the season of getting more stuff. Where are you going to put it? And are you, are we, going to get what we need?
In our own household we have noticed that our answer to the question what do you want for Christmas, is often a shrug and an “I don’t know”. My wife and I (ok, my wife) have come to understand that with all the stuff we (read the children) have, we are unable to discern what we want, or truly need.
What are the things, and what is all the stuff you or your church needs to get rid of? This is a story of what and how and even why one place made room in its life. Maybe it’s too late for a fall cleaning (you can remember this for the great season of cleaning out) and the Great Fire of Easter which can burn away that we do not need nor want in our common lives.
Charles Wilson is rector of St. Philip Episcopal Church, an historic African-American parish, in Columbus, Ohio. He is a graduate of Bexley Hall (Columbus) and a native of Holyoke, Massachusetts. He and his wife have two children in middle school and live in Columbus. Fr. Charles has served in diocesan leadership roles and is a member of The Gathering of Leaders.