Saturday, April 03, 2010


by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M. Reprinted with permission.

Knowing more about the Easter Vigil helps us to understand it, appreciate it, and live the Paschal Mystery on a deeper level.


From the outset the Easter Vigil, originally and more appropriately called the Paschal Vigil, has been celebrated at night. In the beginning it was a very plain ceremony – an assembly that ended with the breaking of the bread and an agape. One or more days of fasting preceded the Easter Vigil.

Later, as the Easter vigil developed in Rome and in places where the Roman rite was followed, this tradition added a baptismal rite, the ceremony of the lucernarium, blessing of the new fire, and a candlelight procession.

As it developed the Easter Vigil became more and more meaningful and focused. From the very first the celebration took place at night like the weekly Eucharist, because most of the faithful could not assemble during the day.

The evangelists already situated the discovery of the tomb “as the first day of the week was dawning” (Mt 28:1), very early” (Mk 16:2; Jn 20:1), “at dawn” (Lk 24:1). The thrust is that Jesus is the “light of the world” that came into the world as a “revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32).

Significance of the ceremony

In baptism the believer passes from death to life (Col 2:12). Ritually and really the neophyte, the newly baptized person, is plunged with Christ into death so as to come to new life with the one who “was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father” (Rom 6:4). For this reason baptism is called “illumination” (in Biblical Greek, photismos) and the baptized, “illuminated.” Light is the dominant theme.

In our day, thanks to electricity, we can have as much light as we want whenever we want it. This was not the case in the past, when lighting the lamps in the evening was a rite. This was generally a happy occasion, when many lamps were lit as for a banquet at the beginning of the Sabbath on a Friday evening. Christians understood that this light which drives away the darkness is a symbol of the Christ-light.

The procession led by the Paschal Candle represents the journey of God’s people no longer led by a bright cloud but by the glorious light that shines on every person coming into the world

(Jn 1:9). This rite is most solemn in the context of the great night illuminated by the resurrected Christ. This is eloquently explained in the solemn proclamation of the Lord’s resurrection that we now call the Exsultet.

Because all lights were extinguished on Holy Thursday evening, it is necessary to light a new flame in order to celebrate a liturgy at night. And so the ritual developed: the blessing of a new fire and the procession into the church led by the Paschal Candle as the celebrant intoned “Light of Christ!” and the faithful responded “Thanks be to God!”

Recession, then development

Over the centuries this celebration underwent some problems and waned in significance. As late as the thirteenth century the liturgy was still not entirely structured. Since the seventh century there had been a general decline, and this event was celebrated early in the day on Holy Saturday. When Pope St. Pius V reformed the Missal in the sixteenth century following the Council of Trent, he forbade the celebration of the Eucharist after midday. Consequently on Holy Saturday morning in churches brightened with sunlight and a barely perceptible flame on the Easter Candle, the celebrant sang, “O night truly blessed!” In addition very few people were able to attend this long liturgy on Holy Saturday morning. This added to its diminished appreciation.

The Biblical, patristic, theological, and liturgical renewal that began to swell in the 1920s indicated the unacceptability of this condition and the impoverishment of the Easter celebration. In 1951 Pope Pius XII authorized the celebration of the Easter vigil during the evening hours of Holy Saturday, and revised the rites to foster greater congregational participation. Then in 1955 he decreed that the Easter Vigil must take place at night. In our day we follow the “Missal of Pope Paul VI” promulgated in 1969 following the Second Vatican Council.

Today the Easter vigil has four parts: 1) the blessing of the fire, procession of the Easter Candle, and the chanting of the Exultet; 2) the Liturgy of the Word; 3) the baptismal liturgy, which includes at least the blessing of the water and the renewal of baptismal vows; 4) culminates in the Eucharistic liturgy.

This solemn celebration of the Lord’s resurrection is the zenith of the liturgical year, “the solemnity of solemnities.”

The challenge

While the spoken word is very important in the liturgy, we are called to be more alert to the symbolism, both in things and in actions. We are asked to approach with a receptive attitude, ready to be engaged in a way that appeals both to the mind and to the heart, to one’s whole being. We are invited to look attentively on the realities present in signs that cannot be fully captured in words. This is how we are called to participate fully in the Easter Vigil.

The Easter Vigil invites us to action -- to go forth and reflect the light of the resurrected Christ to the world around us.

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