I promised you bells and fire and here you are - the last post in my Easter Extravaganza. After this I’ll be taking a few days' break. My mind’s a blur of hot cross buns and chocolate eggs. Then there was goodbye to Janet and Peter in Shrewsbury Market. Finally on Easter Saturday evening, there was St Alkmund’s Easter Vigil.
I’m glad I went. It had been a busy few days and the St Alkmund’s Vigil was the perfect antidote. I only had to walk through the big doors at the back of the church and stand there smelling the scent of lilies, and there - in the heart of Shrewsbury, with the pubs firing up and people shouting to each other down Butcher Row - all the busyness stopped.
St Alkmund’s is a great church for quietness and reflection. There are signs up all over the place inviting people to use it to take time out. A handful of people stood inside the doorway waiting for the vigil to start. It felt like just the right number, intimate rather than intimidating.
A fire was lit outside by Resident Priest, Richard Hayes [the white knight of the Princess House Public Inquiry, if you remember]. We huddled round it. This part of the Vigil apparently was known as the Service of Light. As officiating priest, Richard Hayes produced the Paschal candle [sometimes called the Easter or the Christ candle, or even the Passover Candle, relating to the connection between Easter and the Jewish Passover] and traced the cross on it and the Alpha and Omega [signifying Christ as the fulfillment of all things]. Then he lifted the candle aloft to signify Christ as Light of the World. Our own little candles were lit from it and we made our way back into St Alkmund’s church and up the aisle to the chancel.
When I’d arrived, there’d been a hint of light still in the sky. By now, however, all that had gone and the church stood in darkness, the only light coming from its tall, clear-glass windows, which glinted like diamonds. ‘By his holy and glorious wounds,’ pronounced Richard Hayes, as our officiating priest, ‘may the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness from our hearts and minds.’
We could have been a choir of monks processing up that aisle, especially with a sung liturgy, courtesy of our priest’s pitch-perfect voice. Holding up our tiny lights, everything felt, well - medieval, I suppose. All over the world people would be meeting to celebrate like we did now, proclaiming the same form of words, remembering the empty tomb, using this liturgy to trace Easter’s story back to its roots.
The Service of Light concluded with us seated in the chancel around the Paschal candle, which had been given prominence of place amongst the lilies. Then began the second part of the Vigil, the Liturgy of the Word. In turn each of us stood illuminated by the Paschal candle and read out a story from the Bible. Mine was the Genesis story of Creation, starting with those famous words, In the beginning… It was followed by the deliverance of the Israelites through the walled-up waters of the Red Sea [‘the enemies you see before you today, said the Lord God, you will see no more’], and that in turn was followed by Isaiah’s call to the thirsty to ‘come to the waters to drink’, and Ezekiel’s ‘removing from you your heart of stone and giving you a heart of flesh.’
Slowly, passage by passage, we wound our way towards the culmination of the Liturgy of the Word - the Gloria, beginning with the words, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.’ This was the bit I remembered from once, many years before, when I’d been to an Easter Vigil. And it was the bit I was looking forward to. As soon as those first few words were pronounced, the organ burst to life, like a firework going off in the sky, and the congregation picked up hand bells and rang them loudly and continually until the organ signaled a stop.
This provided us with a moment of glorious chaos and cheerful disharmony. I loved it that an ordered service, centuries old, had a place in it for chaos and diversity. Everybody’s bell with its particular tone, and every ringer’s own unique style of ringing was welcome. This was a Gloria in the truest sense of the word.
After the bells had silenced came the third part of the Vigil - the blessing of water and renewal of baptismal vows. This took place around the baptismal font into which water was poured from a great brass jug. ‘At the dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters…’ announced our officiating priest. ‘In the waters of the Jordan, your Son was baptized… As he hung upon the cross, he willed that blood and water should flow from his side… Unseal for your church the fountain of baptism...’
Ancient words, part of the ancient festivity of Easter-tide, celebrated for longer than there’d been a settlement at Shrewsbury and certainly longer than there’d been a St Alkmund’s Church. ‘Cleanse us from sin in a new birth of innocence by water and the spirit,’ announced the priest, and the Paschal candle was lowered into the water as a symbol of death. ‘Have mercy on us,’ he said. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lamb of God, receive our prayer.’
If you’re familiar with church, you’ll know the great questions traditionally associated with Christian baptism. If not, here they are. They’re what happened next. Do you reject the devil and all his works?[Yes, says the congregation.] Do you repent of the sins that separate you from God? [Yes, they say.] Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth, the life? [Yes, they say again - only on this occasion water was sprinkled over not just some baptized baby’s, but everybody’s, head.] Then the Peace took place, where everybody shook everybody else’s hand, looked them in the eye and wished them ‘Peace be with you’. And suddenly we were at the final liturgy, the heart of the Vigil. Everything else has been stripped away. Only the final and most solemn Liturgy of the Eucharist remained.
‘The Lord is risen,’ announced Richard Hayes. ‘He is risen indeed,’ we all replied, and from thereon the liturgy unfolded - the Eucharistic Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, the Agnus Dei, the wafer and the cup, the body and the blood. Have mercy… have mercy… grant us peace. Lamb of God… bearer of sins… redeemer of the world.
Afterwards, I found Shrewsbury town centre busy, lights on, pubs and restaurants doing good business, people on the streets, everybody having a good time. I walked home, dug out some chocolates and a bit of cake and settled in front of the telly. What did I fancy watching? Sometimes there was nothing, but tonight I had a choice. Either I could watch Labyrinth [the much-advertised Kate Mosse Grail mystery], or a documentary on the life of Bach.
A single voice rising out of the St Matthew Passion like a bird on the wing made the choice for me. It was hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff. Yet according to the documentary’s narrator, even after composing masterpieces like this Bach still saw his life as full of ‘hideous vexations’. ‘I see no future for myself,’ he wrote to a friend.
If Bach felt that way, what hope was there for the rest of us? How could the composer of music so uplifting ever feel so bleak? Didn’t Bach realize what he had achieved? An extract was played from the B Minor Mass. For a man who found reality baffling, its sense of consolation was nothing short of a miracle.
‘Bach helps us hear the voice of God in human form, ironing out the imperfections of humanity in the perfection of the music,’ intoned the narrator. I liked the way he put that. I got it, too. Here, at the end of a busy few days, I was glad we’d chose Bach over Kate Mosse and the Grail and all that stuff. Glad I’d made it to the Vigil too. For me, its ancient liturgies were mystery enough.