16 April 2007
Easter Sunrise Vigil at Durham Cathedral
Sunday, April 8, 2007, 5 a.m.
President and Preacher, N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham
. . . . .
Since we are members of a congregation of nine, we are fortunate to experience this annual celebration of corporate worship
“I’ve set the alarm for 2:45.”
Ben’s last words hang in the dark as he falls asleep before I can protest. This has become our annual tradition, the only day I’ll rise before the crack of dawn. Ben needed to allow me and visiting sister Sylvia plenty of time to wake, shower, consume a caffeinated beverage, and get out the door early enough for good seats. Last year we complained that the (only) security light was shining directly into our eyes through the first service which begins in the dark and ends at dawn. We had also learned that though one can arrive bedraggled for the pre-dawn vigil where one can’t be seen, this leads directly into the Easter morning service where new arrivals come in Easter bonnets and an array of gay apparel. The first year we were caught shamefully unawares. We came to the vigil donning our warmest fleeces, scarves and walking boots (I know)... I had slept to the last minute and had no time for shower or makeup (I KNOW!!) All was well while shrouded in cozy darkness, until we were flung into bright morning light amid hundreds of parishioners dressed their finest. We were humiliated and disgraced (but warm).
This year, early rising permitted time to bathe and arrive most appropriately clad. At 4:35, we were first at the Cathedral door. In fact so early that the main entrance was still securely gated and locked. The famous knocker which afforded criminals sanctuary for centuries, was bolted down. We thumped on the heavy wooden door; our cold knuckles barely made a sound and roused no one.
It was chilly but not windy, our best Easter morning ever. While we realized photo opportunities in the dark, small groups of pilgrims dragged themselves up the hill and queued silently behind us. At 4:45 the cross-bearer, nervous he would miss his cue down the aisle, made some calls on his mobile phone. Within moments an embarrassed verger appeared, unlocked the door with no apology, and quickly faded into the dark. Apparently the priests and choir had let themselves in through the back and forgot to open the main entrance.
One Hour Before Dawn: The Chapter House
The Easter vigil begins in the Chapter House, a large, beautiful, 12th century apsidal room not usually open to the public, used only by priests and the choir. We walk through the Cathedral in the dark surrounded by dim skeletons of pews and pillars. Our collective footsteps echo up the nave, out the South door and into this magnificent space. That offending single (security) bulb is on; we find seats away from its glare.
The priests and the Bishop silently process to the front. The deacon begins with a reading of Creation. When “there was light,” two tall candles are lit in the front. Readings from the Old and the New Testaments follow, with a prayer, a unison Amen, and a long, wonderful span of silence. This triptych repeats itself till 6 a.m, when the first glimmer of pre-dawn light shines through the clearstory stained glass windows.
Dawn: Out to the Cloisters, in the Cathedral
We move from the Chapter House into the cloisters, holding an unlit taper candle each. Here, in the center of the green, a large iron basket of fire is ablaze. The Bishop lights the Paschal candle from this fire, passes the flame to the priests, who pass it to the choir, who pass it to us and to each other. Through clouds of incense and the dawn’s early light, priests and boys’ choir lead the candle-lit crowd into the Cathedral. As all things are perfect this morning, we secure nearly-front-row seats directly behind the two rows reserved for the confirmation candidates. Easter is a high day for baptism and confirmation here, upholding a tradition practiced over hundreds of years by the early Christian church, when baptisms took place annually, and only on Easter Sunday.
At sunrise, a prayer is sung by the Bishop, ending with the pronouncement, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” The congregation responds with, “He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” And then, in this most sacred service, the boys’ choir, secretly prepared for this their favorite part, bursts into unexpected, cacophonous uproar—kazoos, rattles, wooden sticks and clappers all break the solemn silence in joyous bedlam. Even the pipe organ joins the pandemonium. Everyone shouts. And the choir sings Gloria.
We regain our solemn (English) composure and the service continues with interactive readings, anthems, hymns and prayers. At the conclusion of the Bishop’s sermon, the priests dismiss the candidates for the ritual of baptism and confirmation.
Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion
Their ages vary from nine to old. Those baptized as infants will get confirmed; those not baptized as infants will receive baptism first (water on the head), then confirmation. First, the candidates are each called by name and take their vows. They are then led to the back of the nave where the font is located. The Bishop invites the priests, the choir, and the entire congregation to join them around the font, and we process back, singing, “Source and fount of all creation, Pour thy Spirit from above”... No one remains in the nave, hundreds of us surround the space around the font where the candidates kneel. The Bishop again names each candidate and crosses their foreheads with oil. He then takes rosemary branches, dips them in the blessed font water, and sprinkles them generously. Finally, he dips the branches into the water again and sprinkles the entire gathering, admonishing, “Remember your baptism.”
Back in our seats we are offered communion, and the congregation is dismissed by row to receive it. We decline going forward as we don’t fancy drinking out of the communal cup. We vainly long to be rendered invisible in our premium front-row spots, hoping our personal choice does not cast a bad example on others. We sit still for an eternity.
To conclude the service, we are invited to “exchange a sign of peace.” When we first encountered this a few years back, we had absolutely no idea what to do. Do we raise two fingers? In church? We waited uneasily till ones in the know made the first move. “Peace be with you,” they said, and shook our hands. After this brief warm interaction, a hymn is sung and our candles are relit, one to the other. We processed down the nave to festive organ fanfare, shook the Bishop’s hand, and walked into a sunlit Easter morning.
We returned home around 8, hungry for a hearty breakfast. It was a dazzling morning, and I happened to comment that we shouldn’t waste this rare and glorious day indoors. No sooner than we had swallowed our final morsels, Ben arrived with his maps to provide various “options” for our day. Unfortunately for him the only option sister and I desired at that instance was a nap. Upon awakening we would be ready for wherever, “as long as there are sheep and lambs,” said sister.
We spent the remainder of the day driving through rolling hills and dark-green pastures. There were lambs and lamas, pheasant, partridge, and wide desolate places. With streams and lonely farms and... What's this? A Roman road? Oh, and, surprise, the remains of a Roman fort! Everyone was happy. And the evening and the morning were the next day.