Keeping Watch – How Vigils Can Prepare Us for the Next Chapter
by Rev. Dr. Jessica McArdle
[The first Passover] was a vigil held by the Lord…to bring God’s people out of the land of Egypt.~ Exodus 11:42
Then Jesus said, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and keep watch with me.~ Matthew 26:38
Earlier this spring, I was invited to an interfaith panel presentation and discussion on death and the afterlife. It was just a few short weeks after the Parkland High School shooting. The gathered assembly represented a diverse background in terms of religious affiliation, teaching and culture, so I took a deep breath and broached this question:
If a recent tragedy deeply impacted not just your immediate congregation but the wider community, and as religious leader you were asked to organize a vigil as a way of bringing together people from all walks of life – what theme and set of practices would you use to palpably speak to the gathered people’s experience of trauma, grief, anger or despair?
For a few moments, there was silence. No one spoke. I realized that the tragedy - though not addressed during the panel discussion – still loomed large. It had not dissipated but lingered, remaining a troubling and unspoken intrusion into the collective psyche of the gathered body.
After some moments, the rabbi spoke. She said people would need to hear a word of hope. When they had lost everything – be it homes or a sense of safety – a vigil must begin and end with hope. Therefore and as a starting point, when God’s people are overcome by adversity – those who are called to minister should focus on hope too.
Yet if hope is the focus, how do we begin; particularly in the aftermath of human violence1 or catastrophic disaster? What if members of the clergy or community leaders only have a day or two, or just hours to prepare? What if those planning the event have different perspectives as to what should be included, given diverse traditions and the broad spectrum of adults, youth and/or children who might attend?
When everything that our congregation and/or wider community held dear is utterly dashed or decimated, sacred texts can help us to re-examine human futility and hope in this context. In other words, I believe we cannot even begin to speak of hope within the context of a vigil – unless we situate ourselves in a framework and narrative that meets the people where they are.2
When the rabbi spoke, she mentioned the Kaddish as a lens of understanding when addressing hope amidst implacable loss. Traditionally a mourner’s prayer, it is a liturgy that is firmly placed in the context of a community – within a call/response format. What sets it apart is that it invokes praise not in spite of the profundity of the grief, but because of it. Said throughout the year when recalling the names of the deceased, it does not diminish what has occurred but places the loss within the context of a faithful community that refuses to forget - it reminds the people that because God is Sovereign, God cannot forget.3
In organizing a service that respects this particularity of hope4, I would suggest three aspects to
keep in mind:
• First, vigils have the potential to pull individuals and whole communities
together. Even if those attending have never heard of a vigil or attended one, keeping
watch is a practice that transcends time, culture and religious tradition. Why? Because
keeping vigil or watch fulfills an intrinsic and psychic human need that spans time,
culture, class and tradition.
• Second, vigils provide a context for grieving for other losses that while unrelated,
impart resonance and meaning to the experience. In providing both time apart
and the experience of liturgy, keeping vigil dares to speak to the gravity and trauma of
the loss while providing a context for cumulative grief.
• Finally, by offering a life-giving alternative to isolation, alienation,
misinformation and polarization – a vigil can change the direction individuals
and whole communities take following a disaster or violence. In the face of
continued assaults upon congregations and communities through disaster or violence, a
well-planned and well-executed vigil can provide that critical step for those facing the
next and subsequent chapters in their life. In other words, by communicating empathy,
solidarity and advocacy during the vigil itself, the experience can become a bridge to
further growth and reflection, rather than simply a means of hastening closure.
Finding and employing evocative language, meaningful symbols and transitional rituals that
communicate across the spectrum in the wake of violence and/or disaster is a daunting challenge. At
times it may seem as though this constitutes an impossible task, given the current political
polarization, class divisions and overall sectarianism.
Yet in the midst of this, the sacred text has always spoken volumes in such a time as this.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible and Gospel accounts, scripture strenuously resists all attempts to
dismiss, minimize, hide or numb human consciousness. Instead, in the terror and the darkness, the
depravity and the fear, the oppression and the cruelty, the power of the cross attests that there is no
place in heaven or on earth that God will not go in order to redeem us. And we, as those who
follow the one called Christ, are called to keep watch in solidarity and love for all of God’s people.
Please use the links below for further resource information and templates:
1 Violence as used here not only inflicts physical harm as atrocities committed by an individual (such as in the
case of a school shooting) or group (such as the racially charged violence in Charlottesville) but also includes
emotional trauma (such as taking young children from parents attempting to cross the US border). Therefore,
violence is not only arbitrary (as in the case of a lone assailant) but also includes cruel and unjust acts as
perpetuated by the state.
2 The Book of Job puts front and center an upstanding and hardworking man whose entire lifesavings, and
housing, laborers, sons and daughters perish either from catastrophic natural disaster or violence. Left
traumatized and covered with painful sores, there is no one to turn to. His surviving wife rejects him and even
his closest friends accuse him of hypocrisy. Convinced there is no recourse for him in either heaven or earth,
Job cries out, “Where then is my hope and who will see [it]?” (Job 17:15) When the answer comes it is not at
all what Job expects. Instead it is theophany and it emerges from a whirlwind. It is that time and space where
Job’s unimaginable and untouched grief becomes inextricably linked to praise. Inexplicably, it is the connection between the two that confounds him.
3 The two verses quoted at the beginning of this paper, Exodus 11:42 and Matthew 26:38, link the experience of palpable dread to the healing power of remembrance, as with the terror of that first Passover night and Jesus’ impending death by crucifixion. The annual observance of Passover for Jews and Holy Week for Christians, are two occasions where faith communities enact God’s likeness by refusing to forget.
4 “Christian hope does not close our eyes to the suffering of the world….As Jurgen Moltmann put it, ‘those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to begin to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world…’” Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans Press, 1991), p. 248.