Make no mistake, I'm a church geek. Long before I was ordained I went to every Holy Week service available. Easter Vigil was not part of my childhood church life, but once I discovered it as an adult, it became indispensable.
Vigil is wonderful for a lot of reasons. It engages all the senses and both the sacraments. It moves one physically from a womb-like darkness to the bright loudness of resurrection joy. It rehearses some of the most dramatic stories of the Old Testament, including my all-time favorite, the farcical tale of Shadrach Meschach and Abednego. (Try reading it some time with the rhythms of Dr. Seuss.)
I've wished for years that we could get more people engaged in this service, but, of course, it's usually just church geeks like myself who show up. This year, however, Easter's early arrival gave us an opportunity to draw in our Sunday School families in a new way. Hardly anyone was on spring break yet, so every class was given a story to tell, and no one was exempt since it was just part of the Sunday School time during Lent. And, in deference to small children, we started at 6 and kept the service short. We had 133 people there on Saturday night -- easily three times our average.
A good Easter Vigil is really all the Easter I need. (I made a point of telling families that Saturday night "counted" as Easter church). I have long admired the Holy Week practice of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. Easter Vigil is unquestionably the year's highlight, and the next morning there is no liturgy -- only a community picnic. (They also make the eminently practical move of having "Maundy Tuesday," partly to spread out the liturgical commitments of the week.)
After gathering with the most involved members of the community around the most central part of our faith for a few hours at Vigil, Easter morning often feels almost a letdown to me. Sure, there are 500 people through the doors, but many of them are people I don't see very often the rest of the year. It's hard not to be cynical about the ratio of energy put out to community return. I'd much rather have a picnic with the folks who just helped make Holy Week happen.
But, of course, the hospitality of Easter morning is undeniably a resurrection practice -- maybe an indispensable one. All those people who only show up two or three times a year are not going to come to Easter Vigil. They come Easter morning, and the Gospel is for them, even if they do see it as an obligation to be done before brunch. In fact, one could argue that Jesus' resurrection appearances focus on those whose faith is most at risk -- Thomas and his doubts, Peter after his denials, and the two leaving the disciples in Jerusalem and heading to Emmaus. Jesus spends his limited post-resurrection time on them. It makes sense for the church to do the same.