Easter vigil: Worshippers mark holy day with all-night prayer


Many years ago, Roma Thompson says, prayer saved the life of the man who would become her husband.

At age 19, Tenner Thompson's leg began collapsing during basketball games. Mayo Clinic doctors discovered he had a brain tumor and planned surgery. The night prior to the operation, his church held an all-night prayer vigil for him.

To everyone's joy, the tumor was safely removed and discovered to be benign. Tenner went on to letter in tennis in college, became a Lutheran pastor and even played tennis into his 80s, Thompson said.

"I've had lots of prayers answered," she said. "There is power in prayer."

All-night vigil

At 88 and now a widow, Thompson will take part in another all-night vigil this weekend. Throughout the night before Easter Sunday, members at Shalom Lutheran, 681 Vogager Dr., will keep prayers going in the candle-lit sanctuary. They plan to take turns beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday and ending at 7 a.m. Sunday. Thompson has signed up for the 9-10 p.m. shift.

It's the third consecutive year the church has carried out its all-night prayers before Easter, a practice that hearkens back to an ancient Christian tradition. The early church kept watch from Saturday into Easter Sunday, using the time to conduct baptisms, which symbolizes dying and rising with Christ, and to remember Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection.

"It was the most holy and joyful night of the entire Christian year," says a United Methodist Church website.

Over time, the church moved away from all-night vigils, spreading the Easter worship over several days.

While many churches host sunrise services, it takes a certain devotion and willpower to arise in the middle of the night to pray for others.

"Sometimes I have to say, 'sorry Lord, I got off focus,'" Thompson said with a laugh.

It helps, said this year's vigil organizers, to have a project to do. In previous years, they have created lengthy paper chains containing the names of congregation members, praying for each person as they connected each loop. They have walked along the line of chairs, praying for each person who typically sits there during the regular Sunday worship service. Their hands bled while wrapping wire around hundreds of nails and hot gluing them to leather cords, sending up a prayer with each one, then giving the necklaces out after the Easter service.

They discovered, while sorting jelly beans according to the spiritual significance of each color, that there aren't many red ones. Red signifies the blood of Christ.

They have also gone through the church directory, praying for each name.

"We've enjoyed doing it," said Tammy Drewes, who plans to take several middle-of-the-night shifts. "We try to have somebody in the sanctuary at all times."

Prayer comes from the heart

The evening accommodates many styles of prayer.

Some sit quietly. Some bring in hand-written notes. One year, someone played hymns on the church organ. Some sit on the floor and sing songs.

"One size does not fit all," said Pastor Phil Blom, who is filling in until an interim pastor arrives.

It is important, Blom said, for people to realize that they don't need to depend on clergy to lead prayer.

"It's whatever people have in their hearts and minds and that's what prayer is, a communication with God about everything."

Members of the congregation will submit prayer requests, and these run the gamut.

"A 4-year-old praying for a neighbor's dog, and world peace," Drewes said. "It could be for Sunday School teachers. It could be for safe travel."

The prayers will include praise, Drewes said, to "be thankful, not just in need."

On Saturday night, she will be accompanied by Kim Casavan, and their husbands.

"For me, it was very personal last year because my husband had just gone through cancer treatment," Casavan said.

The women see their roles as a way to give back to their congregation.

Not far away, the Church of St. Mary, 420 Irving St., will also be keeping an Easter vigil. While it doesn't last all night, it does start after dark, at 8:30 p.m., and go until about 10:30 p.m., said Father Steve Binsfeld. Five converts to Catholicism will profess their faith and receive their first eucharist, he said.