Ask Ambrose: Designing an Easter Vigil Liturgy

Dear Ambrose:

I need help designing an Easter Vigil liturgy, what are some suggestions?



  • The service begins after sun down.
  • The fire should be a large as you manage. Think—BONFIRE.  If you don’t have a place suitable for a bonfire, use the largest fire pit you can find.
  • Everyone should be able to see the fire.
  • While gathering, sing something that most everyone might know without having to look at music. This could be taught during Lent.

“Were you there”

“I will kindle my fire in the morn of the day, in the presence of holy angels…”

“Within our darkest night” Taize (WLP 835)

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, in him I trust, in him I trust”  J. Berthier Taize, GIA

“The Lord is my Light” Lillian Bouknight, LEVAS 58 (just refrain even)

“Come my Way, my Truth, my Life” 487

“Bless the Lord, my soul” WLP 825

“Arise, shine for your light has come…” (from Music by Heart)

“We walk his way” John Bell

You want something to remind the congregation of the past two days.

The Deacon (or the priest, if no deacon is available) leads the procession with the Paschal Candle.  If you don’t have one you can find instructions for making one on-line.  If you are using incense, the thurifer follows the candle.  The congregation should have hand candles.  A good opportunity to light is each time the Deacon stops to chant “The Light of Christ.”  While the Exsultet is usually chanted by a deacon, a cantor(s) may be appointed.  The Exsultet should be chanted in the dark.  It can be chanted by more than one cantor (placed in different parts of the room) with the congregation repeating “This is the night” each time after the cantor.

The salvation stories that follow the Exsultet can be done with candles being the only light, or the congregation can extinguish their candles and the lights brought up just enough so that music can be seen and read.


Here is the rubric from the BCP: At least two of the following Lessons are read, of which one is always the Lesson from Exodus. After each Lesson, the Psalm or Canticle listed, or some other suitable psalm, canticle, or hymn may be sung. A period of silence may be kept; and the Collect provided, or some other suitable Collect, may be said.

Most parishes do four or five readings.  The BCP gives great permission for the responses to the readings.  There are collects to follow each response but others may be used.  A wonderful Lenten program would be have a group in the parish to write these collects.  If your choir sings psalms following the readings, the congregation can respond with a Taize chant (By night we hasten in darkness, GIA).  It is vital that you get your best readers to participate.  Find your theater folks, your story tellers.


Read directly from the Bible; have an antiphon each time after “God saw that it was good” such as “He’s got the whole world”; use more than one reader

Use James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones” and use two or more readers

And God stepped out on space,

And he looked around and said:

I’m lonely —

I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see

Darkness covered everything,

Blacker than a hundred midnights

Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,

And the light broke,

And the darkness rolled up on one side,

And the light stood shining on the other,

And God said: That’s good!

Psalm 36:5-10         or        Psalm 33:1-11         or

217 (LEVAS) He’s got the whole world in his hands

385                 Many and great, O God are thy works

389                 Let us with a gladsome mind (Ps)

177                 Over the chaos

192 (VF)       Creator of all time and space

MHSO             God of the sparrow, God of the whale

431                 The stars declare his glory

885 (WLP)    Let all Creation Bless the Lord

651                 This is my Father’s World Hymnal

793 (WLP)    Here, O Lord your servants gather


Tell the story from a first person point of view – maybe Noah’s wife or sons.  This could also have sounds—-rain sticks, hands rubbing together, flute for birds and other instruments for other animal sounds. And, maybe too gimmicky, but, …as some churches do at Pentecost with the dove…if there is a dove “kite” or banner—that could make its way around during the chapter 8:6-12

Psalm 46       or

608                 Eternal Father, strong to save

687/8              A mighty fortress is our God

689                 I sought the Lord

Calm to the waves (by Thomas Pavlechko)

678/8              Surely it is God who saves me

881 (WLP)    I will trust in the Lord

805 (WLP)    I want Jesus to walk with me

439                 Wondrous Love


If you have a couple of good soloists, use Benjamin Britten’s work – “Abraham and Isaac” to tell the story

Psalm 33: 12-22     or        Psalm 16       or

401                 The God of Abraham Praise

173                 O sorrow deep!


Tell the story in the first person – maybe from Miriam’s point of view

James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Let My People Go.” Read Peter Skrzynecki’s breathtaking poem “Crossing the Red Sea.”

Canticle 8 – The Song of Moses   or

648                 Go down, Moses

425                 Sing now with joy unto the Lord

905 (WLP)    Wisdom freed a holy people

Praise the Lord, Dance for Joy (from We Walk his Way ) John Bell

Wash me in the Water (from We Walk his Way: John Bell)

You must never give up “Sizo bambelela” South African (from We Walk his Way)

143 (LEVAS) Wade in the Water

767 (WLP)    Baptized in Water

121 (LEVAS) Baptised in water

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand (I am bound for the promised land, available public domain )

Let the Broken ones be healed from Music by Heart (which could have a circle dance, too;

Healing River of the Spirit to the tune Chartres


Proclaim it with joy

Read from the Bible up to “Seek the Lord” and have a cantor sing the Second Song of Isaiah

Canticle 9 – The First Song of Isaiah      or        Psalm 42: 1-7                      or

678/9                Surely it is God who saves me (Canticle)

134 (LEVAS) Take me to the water

67 (VF)          Crashing waters at creation

677                 God moves in a mysterious way (maybe use different tune)


Psalm 19       or

60 (VF)          Come and seek the ways of Wisdom

906 (WLP)    Even when young, I prayed for wisdom’s grace

431                 The stars declare his glory (Ps)

584                 God, you have given us power to sound (maybe use different tune)


Psalm 42       or

658                 As longs the deer (Ps)

Deep within (found in ELW)

727 (WLP)    As panting deer desire the waterbrooks (Ps)

574/5              Before thy throne, O God, we kneel


Appoint a voice of the Spirit of God and an Ezekiel and have it read dramatically.  Have something to rattle.

Psalm 143    or

Use the Taize response (O Lord hear my prayer) as an antiphon for the psalm

466                 Eternal light, shine in my heart

508                 Breathe on me, breath of God

521                 Put forth, O God, the Spirit’s might (maybe use a more familiar tune)

59 (VF)          Breath of God, life-bearing wind

116 (LEVAS) Let it breathe on me

115 (LEVAS) Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me

This could be a neat thing: after v. 3 “Son, can these bones live? Sing Isaac Everett’s antiphon

From The Emergent Psalter (Church Publishing, Inc.)

Dem Bones, Dem Bones (as antiphon to the psalm)

773 (WLP)    Heal me, hands of Jesus

We will be fed with finest wheat (from We Walk His Way)


Psalm 98       or        Psalm 126    or

413                 New songs of celebration render (Ps)

678/9              Surely it is God who saves me

When God restored our common life


Going to and from the font should be an event.  Make it easy for everyone to encounter the water – either through asperges, or an invitation to come to the water.  If space allows, have the congregation process to the font while singing (Take me to the water, or similar).  During the asperges look at “Cleanse Us, O Lord” published by GIA.  There are options for different instruments.  Baptism (or the renewal of Baptismal Vows can happen right after the readings or can occur after the Easter Acclamation).

The sermon can be preached at any point in the Story portion, or after the Gospel.  The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom is a dramatic option for the sermon (

Just prior to the Easter Acclamation the BCP tells us to light the altar candles from the Paschal Candle.  If possible, bring in all the Easter lilies at this point.  Dress the altar.  While this is going on a festive organ voluntary can be played.  All the lights in the church are brought up.  If you have liturgical dancers this would be a great time for them to “dance” the altar frontal up the aisle.


This is the First Eucharist of Easter; all other Eucharists are repetitions.  Now is the time for the EASTER ACCLAMATION.  While the BCP says that this “may” be done, we can’t imagine an Easter Vigil without it.  It should be shouted three times—each time a little louder!  Bells and noisemakers are appropriate here.

A canticle is then sung.  The BCP gives the option of three canticles – the Gloria, the Pascha Nostrum, or the Te Deum.  There are many options for any of these.  Most importantly, it should be a setting that the congregation knows well.  In addition to the settings in the service music section of the hymnal here are some other ideas:

366                 Holy God, we praise thy Name (Te Deum)

364                 O God, we praise thee and confess  (Te Deum)

421                 All glory be to God on high (Gloria)

880 (WLP)    God’s Paschal Lamb is sacrificed for us (Pascha Nostrum)

The BCP gives the option of the reading from Romans and Psalm 114 or we can go directly to the Gospel reading.

Since Baptismal Vows have been renewed, the Nicene Creed is not used in the service. From this point on, the liturgy proceeds as usual. Eucharistic Prayer D is a wonderful option for this service; otherwise, Prayer A is appropriate.

The Paschal Candle remains lighted throughout the Great Fifty Days of Easter.