by Alissa Newton
When the alarm goes off at 3:30am Sunday morning I turn it off without even waking up. I have this habit, honed through the many middle-of-the-night phone calls from the road when Andrew was touring early in our marriage. I developed the ability to answer the phone, even talk to my husband, while continuing my sleep uninterrupted. I would have no memory of the event. Since I know this about myself, the second alarm goes off at 3:35, followed by Andrew's alarm at 3:45. That's the one that does it, because it's on his side of the bed and I am not able to reach it without sitting up and climbing over him. At that point, I'm up.
And glad to be - I was due at church at 4:15. I am there by 4:30.
As a child and young person growing up in an evangelical church there was always an Easter sunrise service. And, seeing as my mom was the choir director, we were always there for it. I have dim memories of being loaded into our green van half asleep in the morning darkness, and trudging up the hill behind our church building wrapped in blankets. We would sit in the rows of folding chairs that had been placed outside next to the giant tree overlooking the plot of land our congregation hoped to build on someday. And we faced toward the sunrise. It was never a long service, being as it was outside and people were cold, but it was timed so that the sun would come up as Pastor Rick was preaching, or maybe as we were singing. Wrapped in my blanket, perched on the edge of my cold metal chair, it was always the sunrise that thrilled me. Though the music and the preaching was fine, the goosebumps and that tight, holy feeling that spread though my body as we said "He is risen" to each other wouldn't have been there without the magic of that rising sun. That is what I remember about Easter mornings as a child.
Now that I'm an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian in Seattle, I don't have Easter morning outside. For one thing, the sun makes fewer appearances here in the Pacific Northwest than it does in Sacramento, CA where I grew up. Most Episcopal churches participate in a liturgy called the Triduum , which is one service that takes place on three days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and a service that is either late in the evening on Holy Saturday, or early on Easter Sunday, the Easter Vigil. I've done the Vigil both ways - when I was confirmed at St. Mark's it was a Saturday evening. Now at St. Paul's we are fairly hardcore about liturgy. So, of course, our Vigil is on Easter Sunday, and it starts at 5am.
I am there at 4:30, putting on my alb and enduring a gentle ribbing from my friend Kate, who managed to be there on time. The only thing better, in my opinion, than attending the Vigil is serving in it. While our 5am, heavily choreographed, ancient, three hour long liturgy is a far cry from the 45 minutes huddled under a blanket outdoor experience of my childhood, I feel a similar anticipation and excitement in this service to what I felt watching all those sunrises, years ago.
The church is dark as people file in. We wait in our white robes, holding our sturdy candles, unlit. Outside is Seattle, drizzling rain and for the most part fast asleep. But there is a steady stream of pilgrims coming in, getting their tapers at the door, finding places in the dark sanctuary, settling children on the wooden pews. The little Nelson kids are wide eyed, electrified with the rush of being awake when they are usually asleep, the novelty of total darkness in a place where there is always at least one candle burning.
The Vigil is like a sunrise, but longer. From the darkness a tiny light comes - a fire, lit at the back of our space, blessed, and then spread to the hundred or so handheld candles that fill the pews. Songs are sung, and we listen to many stories of the People of God, their readings punctuated by psalms and sung prayer. About 45 minutes in ushers quietly move down the aisles, offering replacement candles because most are dangerously close to burning out.
Then, still in darkness, a baptism. Kate and I are left back at the altar while the rest of the servers process with the baptismal candidate back towards the font, where our new fire began some hour ago. We wait until backs are turned and then tiptoe towards the altar rail that separates the congregation from the servers up front, so we can see. Baptisms always make me cry, like seeing someone married or born or dying does. It's something I cannot quite explain.
The sun is almost up now, not outside but in here, where we are. After the baptism Melissa, our priest, takes a bouquet of rosemary and dips it in the waters. She walks around the entire place, flicking water on everyone, letting each of us share in the sacrament of joining that has just taken place. The choir sings a long, chaotic recitation of all our saints, and we remember. Or maybe we just listen in awe. When she returns to the altar we servers face the congregation and all wait for the moment.
This is where Lent makes sense to me. This moment wouldn't be what it is, if we had not been avoiding the word "Alleluia" for the past six weeks. It wouldn't be what it is if our space had not been bare of flowers for the past six weeks, if our priests had not been in simple, spare vestments, if our altar had not gone unadorned by silver, if our Bread was not coarse wheat instead of the usual honeyed white. If we had not just spent ninety minutes in heavy candlelit darkness, if we had not listened again to the Old Testament stories of Creation, Flood, Dry Bones and promises this moment wouldn't hit with the weight that it does. And, this is key to me, if we were not together, a community of faith, all sorts of people who have been doing all of this in union these past six weeks.
"Alleluia Christ is Risen," she sings it. And the lights fly on (not all together, but choreographed, like a sunrise).
"The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!" we sing it back, and the pilgrims reach into pockets and purses for bells of all shapes and sizes and begin to ring them vigorously. The organ is playing something familiar and triumphant, and we can see for the first time the explosion of white flowers on both sides of the Table, the gold vestments adorning our sacred ministers and the matching cloth adorning our table.
The sun is up. And we proceed to celebrate an entire mass, basking in the glory of our new year, our new hope, the silver cups and plates, the white bread, the Alleluia, the Mystery of Easter that we can come close to in a sunrise, in a dark liturgy that ends in explosions of gold and light, in all these symbols and sacraments saying with their shapes, lines, and colors what our words cannot express.
"Whew!" My friend who works at the coffee shop down the block from St. Paul's says to me when I stop in after the Vigil for my americano. "That's commitment!"
But it isn't. It's Easter. It is the sun coming up, the trees turning white and pink, and the earth warming. It is a new fire inside me and hope burning so strong that my eyes water. It is a Mystery, and I would set one hundred alarm clocks if I had to, to make sure that I got to be there and hold my small piece of the Light.
Alissa is St Paul's Lay Pastor for Children and Young Families, a postulant to Holy Orders, and the editor of the parish blog. This post was originally published on her personal blog.