Permit me to be a little liturgical in this Easter season…
One service whose magic many churches manage to miss out on for the sake of a few inattentions is the Easter Vigil. Here's the order it went in where I was this year, with some annotations…
1. The people gather around the new fire (which is already lit) outside the church.
Two things are unfortunate about this: firstly, everyone should see the flame being kindled from nothing, to mark the moment of new light. Secondly, the fire should only come *after* the darkness. Which means definitely not at the beginning of the vigil.
2. The newly lit Paschal Candle, with its pins in, is processed into the church and 'The Light of Christ' is chanted three times, increasing in pitch, while the people's candles (which must be new ones) are lit.
At this point there should be no light in the church. Not even in the organ loft!
3. The Exultet is sung
This is well and good, but two things are important: firstly, that it is sung with all the right words, and secondly that it is sung with meaning (that means understanding what is being sung and singing it with poise and atmosphere). THIS is the night.
4. The vigil readings
These should come right at the beginning of the service, before number 1. above. They should be read while the church is in complete darkness, with only a tiny light for the reader to see with. There should be seven readings. Seven. Not four.
5. The vigil psalms
These should be sung to plainsong, including tonus peregrinus where appropriate. They should not be sung to anglican chant (too pretty) nor responsorially, please. Most importantly, the psalms are NOT to be followed with anything resembling 'Glory be…', since these are forbidden words from Maundy Thursday until Easter and may not rise again until Jesus does.
6. The Gloria
After the vigil readings and psalms, it is either Easter, in which case numbers 1 and 2. may follow, and a MASS. Or, it is considered not yet Easter, in which case the service should conclude (possibly with the Exultet but I am not convinced by this theory).
If it is Easter, then after 1., 2. and 3, there follows the Gloria, which, being (as I mentioned before) the first risen Gloria since Maundy Thursday, should be accompanied with the switching on of the lights in the church (or the rising of the sun, if vigil at dawn), an organ fanfare and, as long as Maundy Thursday was properly celebrated*, the ringing of bells for the first time. The people's candles should not be extinguished until this has happened.
This is the celebration of the resurrection, with light and music bursting through the darkness and silence of the first 'vigil' part, and from this point it is definitely Easter. There follows the First Mass of Easter, including as many allelluias (sung and triple) as possible - this word hasn't been said during the entirety of lent!
At the habitual place in the mass, baptisms, renewal of baptismal vows, blessing of the new water, and so on, may take place. Where I was this year, however, more was made of the water than of the fire. Which is a bit of a confusion.
Ideally, the entire thing takes place not in the evening of saturday, but very early on Sunday morning: "And very early, they came to the tomb…"
I don't know of any church that does all of this entirely as I have described it, though I hear from John that such a place does exist. I do know some places that come quite close to getting it right, and when they do, it's among the most moving services of the year. Quite appropriately, I would say: after all, what more miraculous than the moment of the resurrection?
*On Maundy Thursday when the gloria is sung for the last time, the bells should be rung with glee, and from then on remain silent (the organ also remaining silent from this moment on) until the first Gloria of Easter.