By FRANCES STEBBINS
This is a chapter in a Memoir, “Give Light…” of the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.
Easter, for those who follow the calendar of Western European Christianity based in Rome, falls late this year on April 21. It’s what is sometimes called “a moveable feast” and depends on the moon phases. The coming holy day, regarded as the most sacred for those who take the teachings of Jesus as all-important, brings to mind many memories and observations.
• Not long after arriving in Roanoke 66 years ago to begin work as reporters for the afternoon newspaper, my late husband Charlie Stebbins and I decided we should go to church on Easter. Both of us were of Episcopal and Presbyterian backgrounds, Virginians from Colonial times, so our religious culture was somewhat similar. Through my work as Church News reporter, I had learned of a small new parish on the north side of the city. We went there and sat in its moveable “cathedral” chairs. It was a significant step in our religious life; we had not been active as young adults for nearly a decade. That year Easter fell on April 5, our Book of Common Prayer informs me.
• Fifty-five years later on April 1, 2008, my three adult children and I attended the memorial service for Charlie at our Salem parish. He had a subtle sense of humor so it was quite fitting, though unintentional, that his funeral fell on April Fools’ Day. At his request, a pink balloon was sent aloft; it hovered briefly over the church columbarium he had helped bring about.
• In between these dates there are many Easter services in my recollections. In my Piedmont Virginia childhood, our high school choir sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” on a hillside overlooking our town. It was a sunrise service, of course, for they have always been popular with early risers.
• In Roanoke I soon learned through my work that some drove as far as Natural Bridge for a sunrise service carried also over the radio. Others went closer to the city’s own Mill Mountain where several downtown congregations would join to greet the dawn. With its hills and rises throughout the valley floor, including Round Hill and various cemeteries, there were plenty of choices.
• But few of them were for me, as I am a night person. In the early 1970s at the former building then used by the newly organized St. Philip Lutheran Church at Hollins I discovered my answer to celebrating Easter.
It’s an old, old service dating back many centuries in Christendom and known as the Great Vigil of Easter. It begins at sunset on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath when Christian Scripture relates that Jesus lay in the tomb.
Churches where the vigil is held – most likely Roman Catholic, Episcopal/Anglican or Lutheran – begin it as the sun sets and darkness settles over the land. Outdoors, if possible, a fire is kindled by the presiding pastor, prayers are said and the congregation follows a cantor into the darkened worship area. By candlelight, the singer chants “The Light of Christ” at three intervals with the people responding “Thanks be to God.”
Once in the dim interior, candles light instructions where a series of prayers and readings from Scripture last for well over the usual time for a service. The readings recount the whole story of Creation, human fall from perfection, God’s loving care, prophecies, the coming of Jesus and the rising of the Body on the third day.
At this point, lights are turned on, joyful hymns sung and a Communion service follows. For me it’s the high point of the year surpassing even late Christmas Eve services.
The vigil hasn’t “taken” in many churches. Some think it’s too long and late, putting small children and elders to sleep. Others complain it detracts from Easter morning.
• For those Christians of the Eastern Orthodox background, such as worship at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox in Roanoke or the small St. Innocent of Alaska parish in the 700 block of Thompson Memorial Drive in Salem, Easter falls this year on April 28 as it does for Christians of the Egyptian (Coptic) branch of the church who now worship on Cresthill Drive Southwest. These Eastern Orthodox folks relate to the Turkish city familiar in tradition as Constantinople.
In my celebrations of Easter over the decades I’ve visited Holy Trinity where worshipers of Greek descent symbolically remove Jesus from the cross on Holy Saturday afternoon. I’ve also visited the Salem Alaskan congregation when it used a mobile home complete with holy pictures and altar behind its screen.
• Finally, among the valley’s distinctive religious groups are the Catholics who revere especially St. Maron. From an old building on Salem Avenue in Roanoke their long-time priest, Msgr. Peter Rabil used to hurry about downtown in his black robes. These families are associated with the city’s emigration of Syrians more than a century ago. In time this Christian Catholic group relocated to Cove Road in the Northwest suburbs and now is known, as are the Greeks of Holy Trinity, with a popular sale of ethnic food.