This is the night: A look at the Easter Vigil

By Timothy Johnston
For the Visitor

The Easter or Paschal Vigil is the pinnacle of the church’s liturgical calendar. It occurs each year in the night before the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox. This year the vigil will be celebrated April 15.

This is the night when God’s children gather to celebrate God’s redeeming love. This is the night the church gathers and celebrates Christ’s triumph over sin and death. This is the night when with one voice all of creation proclaims, “Alleluia, Christ is risen from the dead!”

As a young boy in rural Missouri, I have fond memories of the Easter Vigil. For as long as I can remember, my family attended all three days of the Triduum (Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday). But it was always the Easter Vigil that captured my imagination.

Deacon Joe Kresky holds the Easter candle as Father Ralph Zimmerman lights it from the Easter fire during last year’s Easter Vigil at Sacred Heart Church in Sauk Rapids. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

This ancient night vigil is filled with signs and symbols that help the church meditate on the Paschal Mystery — Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. For those who have attended the vigil, consider what signs and symbols capture your imagination. From the great bonfire at the door of the church to the eruption of the Glory to God and Alleluia, to the submersion of those giving their life to Christ in the waters of baptism, this is the night where Christ’s body gathers to hear and share in the story of salvation.

The Easter Vigil has been celebrated in some form since the earliest days of the church. This Great Vigil, the culmination of our Lenten journey, has its root in the tradition of the Jewish Passover. In the earliest days of the church, the Jewish Christians continued to observe the feast of Passover.

Today, many things disrupt the church’s activity of gathering in the night before a feast to keep prayerful watch. To “vigil” means that the community gathers at night to pray, to observe silent reflection, to sing and to prepare their hearts and minds for the feasting to come. The church does observe other “minor” vigils like the Vigil of Christmas, the Vigil of Pentecost and the Vigil of the Assumption.

The Easter Vigil is the chief vigil among vigils. St. Gregory of Nazianzus called it the “solemnity of solemnities” and St. Augustine referred to it as “the mother of all vigils.” Early church documents like the “Didascalia Apostolorum” (“Teaching of the Apostles”) from the third century give us a glimpse into the practices of our ancestors in faith.

As Adolf Adam notes in “The Liturgical Year: Its History and its Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy,” “as late as the end of the fourth century the Easter Vigil seems to have occupied the entire night, so that no further liturgy was celebrated on Easter day” (76).

The original night vigil, which always began after darkness, consisted of prayers, readings and silence as the community kept watch. By the seventh century, a Mass for Easter Sunday had become popular and the night vigil too evolved into a Mass that ended by midnight. From that point forward until 1954, the Easter Vigil celebrated in the night slowly disappeared.

At one point in history, it was even celebrated at 11 a.m. with few participants. These latter developments ignored the true character and intention of the vigil.

On Feb. 9, 1951, Pope Pius XII permitted, as an experiment in some dioceses of the world, the vigil to take place in the night before Easter. Because this was so successful, the Paschal Vigil celebrated in the night became universal law on Nov. 16, 1955. With the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the vigil has been revised and reclaimed its proper place in the liturgical calendar.

The Easter Vigil consists of four parts:

  • the Service of Light or Lucernarium, which includes the blessing of the new fire, procession with candles into the dark church, and the sung Easter Proclamation;
  • the Liturgy of the Word, which tells the story of salvation, including seven Old Testament readings, a reading from Romans, the joyful alleluia, and the Gospel;
  • the Baptismal Liturgy, in which the whole community, which has journeyed with the catechumens walks them to the font and welcomes them through the waters of rebirth to the Body of Christ; and
  • the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Over the years, I have encountered many people who grumbled that the vigil was too long or even too late. Imagine the impact on the world if the entire Christian community gathered to keep watch on this night. The witness the community gives of God’s redeeming action would invite the world to encounter the risen Christ. The witness of the newly baptized calls the church to rejoice in the resurrection. This is the night where we learn to be the Body of Christ, the church who goes forth proclaiming God’s love and serving our brothers and sisters.

I invite you, especially if you have never attended the vigil, to fully participate in the Easter Vigil in your parish. Allow the rich signs and symbols to wash over you and draw you closer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. This is truly the most important night for the church, the baptized.

“No other event has more significance than this celebration,” says Father Paul Turner in his booklet “What Am I Doing for Triduum This Year?” “You must participate: You simply must be there. The church needs you”

Timothy Johnston is the diocesan director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

About The Visitor

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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