Vigils: A Timeless Way to Experience God
Christians keep vigils. They give us an important way to live our faith daily. They allows us to reshape time, put down the clock and encounter God. To keep vigil means that we have a purpose for watching and waiting. To be vigilant requires a level of endurance and patience. It invites us into a world that asks us to savor the presence of God.
Examples of Vigils
Jesus reminds us to be vigilant and faithful servants: “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately….Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival” (Luke 12:35–37). Another image of a vigil is when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. He invites his disciples to “remain here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:38).
Perhaps one of the most vivid images of a vigil is the group of apostles in prayer following the death of Jesus. In their vigil they recall the events of the crucifixion and ponder the meaning in God’s plan of salvation. It’s in this moment that Christ appears to reassure their faith and send the Holy Spirit so they would continue preaching his name. The Irish wake is a perfect example of a vigil—lengthy, filled with prayer, stories about our beloved dead, laughter, tears, food, and drink. Since my mother was Irish, a typical Irish wake to our family is a real experience—more than an idea found in a book. I can offer liturgical examples of vigils that I’ve personally experienced both from growing up and since I’ve been a priest, but the death of a dear family friend brings a particularly vivid example to mind. As my friend was dying, I joined his family in his final moments. It was beautiful watching his wife speak softly to her husband words of love and tenderness. We told stories, laughed, cried, and even took time to eat. What was important was spending time with him, comforting each other, and remembering God’s gift of life. We waited with him and did what we could to reassure him of God’s love and our love and presence so he would know he wasn’t alone. This vigil took time; it went long into the night until he peacefully entered into God’s embrace. The challenge in keeping vigil is to endure the waiting while holding on to faith that God also is in the midst of the moment. Prayer is a way to make sense of an activity that passes so quietly and slowly. Keeping vigil is difficult, but it helps us to further understand the expressions of the psalms that exclaim: How long, O Lord!
The Mother of All Vigils
Our Church’s liturgy gives us a prime example of vigil in the celebration of Easter. Easter has enjoyed a vigil for centuries and developed very early in Christian worship. It became an annual celebration as early as the second century. The original preparation, a fast before Easter Sunday, was eventually lengthened to form our modern-day Lent. The ancient catechumenate gave important focus for the vigil. It comprised teachings that took the Scriptures as the basis of explaining the Christian faith. Today, at the heart of the Easter Vigil are the readings that map God’s interaction in human life and the saving deeds that continually reminded his people that their lives were sacred and that God loved them. The catechumens would hear these readings and become convinced that God was present in their lives and guiding them to deeper love.
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