Episcopal Rites of Passage: Accidentally Setting Your Beard on Fire at Your First Easter Vigil


Admittedly, setting your own beard on fire at the Easter Vigil is a lesser known ritual. Not one that many Episcopalians go through. I might be the only one person you’ve ever heard of who has done this. But given the late hour of the service, the hand-held candles, and the large number of scripture readings involved, I can’t be the only one.

You want details, right? Of course you do. And I’ll get to them in a moment. But first a word about tricksters.

The archetypical trickster is as common in human stories as the hero. Some religions even incorporate tricksters into their various faith traditions. The Caganer of medieval Spain comes to mind. The Lakota people recognize a backward spirit called Heyoka. This spirit does the opposite of what you might imagine. When everyone else is crying, it is laughing. When they laugh, it might cry. Certain people in communities are said to have the Heyoka spirit. Their calling is to be delightfully inappropriate. They shake things up, bringing insights and truths to light that might remain hidden if if things unfolded comfortably and according to plan.

We don’t have official trickster roles in American Christian traditions – televangelists notwithstanding – but the Heyoka appears now and then unofficially. Like it did with me Saturday night before Easter.

I was eagerly looking forward to my first Easter Vigil experience with my friends at Saint Francis. We met outside the sanctuary as the sun was going down. Our Paschal Candle was lit from a brazier and we solemnly filed into our darkened sanctuary, led by its dim light. We used small candles lit from Paschal Candle to read the scripture portions chosen for the service.

There were a lot of passages to read. So many that our candles burned down to stubs. People moved back and forth in the community, providing fresh candles as needed. In my weakness, my attention began to wander a bit. At that moment, some sort of Episcopal Heyoka decided to have a little fun with me. It had to be Heyoka, because the irony is too rich. For you see, I started looking around and wondering if anyone ever accidentally lit their hair on fire at the Easter Vigil.

Hey, it could happen. Someone gets a little sleepy and starts nodding, some hair dips into the flame, and there you go. I got a little concerned and checked the people around me to make sure everyone was okay. Walter and Joyce Baker were sitting in front of me. I decided if Joyce’s hair caught on fire I was going over the pew to help put it out. I totally would would do that too. I would. I looked at my hands and wondered how badly they would get burned if I had to help put out a fire on someone’s head.

Okay, here’s the second-most embarrassing thing about the evening. The “penultimate embarrassment” as scholars call it. I started feeling a little proud about the hypothetical scenario I had created in my head, wherein I would dive over the pew and save Joyce or Walter from serious injury. Because, you know, that’s just the kind of guy I am. If I imagine your head catching fire, I will also imagine myself saving you.

And that’s when the ultimate embarrassing thing happened. I was so busy looking around at people’s candles that I forgot about my own. I leaned forward to look down the row and make sure everyone was safe. There was a sharp hiss and a little puff of smoke, followed by the unpleasant smell of burned hair. Also a little spot on my chin suddenly felt kind of warm.

Yeah. I set my own beard on fire at the Easter Vigil service. I did that. That would be me.

I brushed the ashy bits of hair off my chin and looked around. No one else noticed. Probably because they were paying attention to the worship service. And I can promise you that I paid close attention from that point forward as well.

I did laugh a bit later when I realized how ridiculous I had been and what it took to pull my mind back to our worship. I think I zoned out during the Ezekiel reading, set my beard on fire, and was completely back in the swing of the service well before the triumphant first allelujah of Easter.

Unexpected things happen in worship services all the time. Babies cry, people pick their noses during prayers, mobile phones go off at the worst moments, preachers say things that could be and are interpreted sexually – leading to snickers from the teenagers and naughty glances between husbands and wives, and occasionally someone sets his own beard on fire, pats it out, looks around to see if anyone noticed, and then goes right on worshipping as if nothing happened.

We church people try to put together rituals and practices that are high and mighty and point to cosmic truths that exist on exalted planes, far above us. We are also silly creatures prone falling into the exact opposite of what we intended.

The Heyoka has a strong, if unofficial presence in Christianity, is what I’m saying. And I suspect its presence may be particularly strong in me. So I smiled as I trimmed my beard on Easter Sunday morning. And I’m counting the Easter Vigil service as my richest spiritual experience of 2013.

So far…

Gordon Atkinson


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  • Just to head off any questions. This is a true story. Every bit of it, including my secret thoughts, now laid open to the world. I do think it’s appropriate that it got posted on this day though.

    • But you left out the most important part…. How’s your beard doing?

      • I keep it trimmed pretty short. Just a bit on my chin. No one even noticed.

  • Scott

    I hope it is not insensitive, but I’m still laughing to myself after reading this. I’m just glad you were not seriously hurt, however, and that no one had to jump over the pew to save you!

  • Just in case you need it, because now that it has happened unintentionally, whose to say you don’t try it to see who saves you…

  • derek moore

    haha. great post!!

  • Wilfried

    I could tell you about the woman who set her hair on fire on Candlemas. Or the Flaming Thurible of Antioch. Or my own thurible malfunction resulting in coals on the floor, and my very own black mark in the chancel… Liturgy is a tricky thing…

  • MO

    The night I was received into the Episcopal Church was the Easter Vigil of 1984. The then-Presiding Bishop, John Maury Allin, was presiding. I carefully went out and bought a new suit, new shoes, and new pantyhose.

    I knelt on the top chancel step, in front of the bishop to be received, handed my candle to the rector, and was duly “recognized as a member…”

    I got up from kneeling, took my candle back from the rector–and the next thing I knew, I was lying face down at the foot of the chancel steps, with my skirt over my head and my candle broken but still lit (how’s that for a metaphor).

    I pushed my skirt down, got up, turned around, and bowed to the bishop and everyone in the chancel–and I cracked up laughing. Everyone else laughed then, and finally we all calmed down and went on with the liturgy.

    Afterward, Bishop Allin said to me, “I think we _only_ want people who can come up laughing after a pratfall like that. Welcome!”

    So, having a sense of humor is a definite asset.

  • Dianne

    Welcome Gordon! Just discovered your blog and can’t wait to catch up by reading past posts. I hope you grow to love the Episcopal church as much as this 55 year old twenty year member.

  • john cheek

    During an Easter Vigil service a few years ago during the reading of the parting of the Red Sea, one of the priests who was also playing the organ had set his candle down on the windowsill in preparation for the next hymn. The candle was set inside a plastic glass which caught on fire. I was unaware of this but the acolyte who was sitting next to me saw it and became quite agitated. All of a sudden he ran over to the fire and attacked and extinguished it with a BCP. Meanwhile the group doing the reading gamely carried on with occasional nervous looks over their shoulder.

  • Your blog is wonderful! I can relate to your story, after burning off half my bangs while trying to follow along with the BCP at a candlelight prayer service when I was in junior high school.. Yes, liturgy can be tricky… Welcome, welcome to the wonderful world that is the Episcopal Church!

  • Doug Keith

    I couldn’t imagine falling asleep during the reading from Ezekiel, at least the one about the dry bones. May your beard growth be like trees, planted along streams of water, whose leaves do not wither.

  • Pam

    I’m still laughing. That Heyoka is a totally unexpected little bugger. I once had a priest who used to joke about almost having a burnt offering instead of a holy sacrifice. Reminds me of him and his wonderful sense of humor.

  • Suzanne Wade

    I’ve been in charge of the Easter Vigil fire in a couple of places now, and I’ve pretty much got it down. A kindle candle, some fatwood, a small amount of newspaper or kindling and you get a fire that goes from a tiny flame to a nice size blaze very quickly and manageably. Well, the last church I served, the priest didn’t believe I knew what I was doing. Someone had piled extra wood next to my set up, and despite my warnings, the priest piled it all onto my little hibachi set up. We went from lovely Easter fire to out-of-control bonfire in about six seconds. To make matters worse, there was a gale blowing, so the fire streamed across the 3-foot cement walk and nearly set the priest and two acolytes on fire. We nearly couldn’t get close enough to light the Paschal candle, and the extra wood prevented us from putting the cover on that was intended to put it out. We were lucky we didn’t burn down the whole neighborhood! I never let the priest live that one down — and the next year he left my set up alone! A wonderful reminder that liturgy is the “work of the people” and as prone to surprises as the Holy Spirit! How appropriate at Easter Vigil!

  • c moore

    could have been worse…..

  • Rachel Stewart

    Hi Gordon
    I would like to know if you draw your own illustrations? They are a good partner for the words, which are also well crafted.

  • only you – rofl

  • Lisa


    I have started an Episcopalian Bloggers linkup at my blog, TheJonesesBlog.com, and wondered if you were interested in joining. The Episcopalian Bloggers linkup’s purpose is to promote the diversity of Episcopalians by advertising your church membership through a blog badge and blogroll. Having a collection of blogging Episcopalians in one place would be amazing for anyone interested in knowing exactly who Episcopalians are. (Which is to say, they are a diverse group of people.)

    To join the linkup, simple visit the Episcopalian Bloggers page on my blog at http://www.thejonesesblog.com/2013/09/episcopalian-bloggers.html, retrieve the badge code, and add your blog’s information to the linkup. If you have any questions or concern, please contact me. I would love to have you join us!

    Lisa Jones