Ars Praedicandi: Preaching at the Vigil and on Easter Sunday Morning

As it turns out, this year I am preaching at both the Easter Vigil and the Easter Sunday Mass, something I’ve only done once before since my ordination. This has prompted me to think as I have prepared my homilies about the different needs of these two liturgies and to what degree one can and should preach the same homily at both.

I realize that priests and deacons are on the whole extraordinarily busy during the Triduum, and one might be hard pressed to find time to prepare two distinct homilies. But it seems to me that in addition to offering quite different scriptures to work with, these two liturgies draw very different sorts of assemblies, and so call for different sorts of homilies.

The Vigil draws, of course, the families and friends of catechumens and (in some places) candidates for full communion. But it also draws those who love the richness of its symbolism and the fullness of the story of salvation that it recounts. In my experience, it is a “high-commitment” crowd that is probably fairly well-versed in the scriptural narrative. It offers an opportunity to draw upon the the wide array of scriptures read for an assembly who knows and loves many of those readings.

Easter Sunday morning draws a broader spectrum of folks. It is a mistake to think that just because the Vigil draws a “high-commitment” crowd that Sunday morning draws a “low-commitment” crowd. The preacher should not presume that the assembly on Easter Sunday is made up of the stereotypical CAPE (Christmas-Ash Wednesday-Palm Sunday-Easter) Catholics. People have lots of good reasons for not coming to the Vigil (small children, work or other commitments, no prior experience of the Vigil, etc.) other than being slacker Catholics. On the other hand, the infrequent attender is much more likely to be present on Sunday morning than at the Vigil and the preacher should not presume that everyone present has a deep (or any) understanding of scripture or theology. On yet another hand, even the infrequent attender (not to mention the active member who just happens to prefer Sunday morning) doesn’t want to be condescended to, much less scolded.

All of this was on my mind as I prepared my Easter homilies. For both, I focused on Easter as the presence of eternity in a world that is always passing away. This was on my mind due in part to things I’ve been reading (such as Paul Griffith’s Decreation: The Last End of All Creatures) and in part to personal circumstances, including the recent death of my mother and of a couple of long-time, very devoted parishioners. As preachers, we always bring to the scriptural texts a personal context that shapes how we choose to preach, what we decide to focus on, what examples we choose, and so forth.

For the Vigil, I focused on salvation history (we have no baptisms this year, which would normally be a natural focus for the Vigil) and how the point of the Vigil is not how great things were in the past, but how this is the night when God’s might works are accomplished. Because I know that many of those who attend the Vigil are long-time, highly committed parishioners, I felt free to mention by name some of those whom our community had lost this year. Also, because I know that those who come to the Vigil love the liturgy, I drew freely from the words of the liturgy itself to make my points. You can read the result here.

For Easter Sunday, I drew more from my own personal experience of loss, focusing less on salvation history and more on the sorts of experiences that all people have: experiences of death, or of children growing up and leaving childhood behind, etc. I don’t usually speak so personally in a homiletic context, but my hope was to connect with people for whom the scriptures are terra incognita. At the same time, I felt it was important not to simply reinterpret Easter in terms of universal human experience, so I tried to make sure that the triumph of eternity of time’s losses was clearly linked with the resurrection of Jesus. And I threw in Hopkins for my own enjoyment and for those who, like my, have intellectual pretensions. You can read the result here.

If I had to preach at both of these liturgies every year, or if I had the responsibilities of someone in full time pastoral ministry, I might decide that I did not have the luxury of preparing two separate homilies. But I think that not to do so is to miss an opportunity, and given that I do have the time, I am happy to have the occasion to seize that opportunity.

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7 comments

  1. Our pastor here has 4 different Easter homilies:
    * Vigil based on Luke
    * Morning Masses based on John (the only possible “CAPE” crowd–we can never find ministers for it)
    * Afternoon homily in Spanish.
    * Evening gospel based on Emmaus.

    I don’t know how he does it!!!

  2. Deacon – beautiful homilies; your community is blessed to have you. Especially enjoy your framing of *this is the nite* – that the history of salvation is our history NOW – and then name the community folks have died and risen before us. and even more – name what your community has done – you might even have added a connection to the eucharist – take, break, and eat – as Augustine said – this is the time when we *receive who you are; be what you have received!”

  3. Both well done words of reflection and challenge on a day when Churches are filled with so many agendas. I hope your line of “The God of Easter is not a God who promises to ‘make Christianity great again'” was met with knowing nods. I will read those both again.

  4. It’s always struck me as strange that the year’s synoptic is appointed for the Vigil and John for the morning. If those were swapped, we’d have a consistently Johanine Triduum, and Palm Sunday / Easter Sunday would present a continuous reading from a synoptic.

    But, that’s not how it is. I was preaching the morning, and used the appointed John reading, and linked the reading (and its soudarion in particular) with the preparation for Jesus’ burial in John.

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