In the locked room where the disciples hid after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Jesus appeared to them and showed them the marks of the nails in his body, they were holding a vigil.
In the Book of Acts, (Saint) Peter was arrested and thrown into jail. When an angel of the Lord released him, he went back to the house where he was staying. Even though it was late at night, the followers were up praying for him in a vigil.
A first century world traveler who kept a detailed diary stayed briefly in Jerusalem during the Passover. He was impressed by a particular activity on the part of one group of people. They stood on a hillside just outside of the city walls. They prayed, walked in circles and then would stoop under a heavy wood beam. Historians later determined this traveler had witnessed a group of Christians holding a vigil at the site where Jesus was crucified. It was on the Friday before Passover which we call “Good.”
A vigil is a time of quiet, of reflection, of reading Scripture and prayer. It can be held privately, or as we have seen in Florida, it can involve thousands of people. The typical format is an opening prayer – usually stating why everyone is gathered – then a reading of Scripture, silence, prayer, silence, Scripture, silence, prayer, etc… A vigil can last 30 minutes, many hours, or even years, in some instances.
The Christian belief is that vigils change things. First and foremost, vigils change the heart of the participant. They bring peace and comfort. Secondly, vigils can change the world. When people gather for a vigil, God hears the prayers and through faith responds.
I participated in a vigil in 2009. The governor’s recession-era budget included major cuts in health care to the most vulnerable in California. Through the Interfaith Network, clerics from all different religious traditions gathered at a medical clinic in Vista. The leaders would offer a reading of Scripture, a prayer, and then a short homily. During each homily, the speaker would introduce a different group that would lose vital heath care resources. The groups that stood out most for me were three home contractors whose business had dried up for lack of funding. The hundred people there prayed for the Governor to change his budget and save that clinic and hundreds of others like it around the state. The end result, the clinics remained open, nothing short of a miracle.
I have friends and parishioners who self-identify along all points of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, there are a few things we all agree on – freedom isn’t free, we live in a great Republic, and our country needs prayer. Everyone I talk to is troubled by violence in America. We are all concerned about the state of the Union that we are handing on to our children. And we’re going to do something about it. This Sunday, we are going to hear God’s word, bow our heads in prayer, and place our country in God’s steady and supportive hands.
May God’s peace be with us and may God grant peace to America.