Keeping Watch: The Easter Vigil

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The Easter Vigil also called the Paschal Vigil or the Great Vigil of Easter is a service in traditional Christian churches as the first official celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. It is traditionally at this time that people are baptized and that adult catechumens are received into full communion with the Church. It is held in the hours of darkness on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday–most commonly in the evening on Holy Saturday or midnight. It is the first celebration of Easter, days traditionally being considered to begin at sunset.

In the West, liturgical churches including the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran, it is among the most important services of public worship in the church year and is the first time since the start of Lent, that the exclamatory “Alleluia” is used, a distinctive feature of the Easter season. 

The original twelve Old Testament readings for the Easter Vigil survive in an ancient manuscript belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Armenian Easter Vigil also preserves what is seen as the original length of the traditional gospel reading of the Vigil (from the Last Supper to the end of Matthew’s Gospel). In the earliest Jerusalem usage the vigil began with Psalm 117 [118] sung with the response, “This is the day which the Lord has made.” Then followed twelve Old Testament readings, all but the last being followed by a prayer with kneeling.

(1) Genesis 1:1-3:24 (Creation and the Fall) (2) Genesis 22:1-18 (the binding of Isaac) (3) Exodus 12:1-24 (the Passover) (4) Jonah 1:1-4:11 (Jonah) (5) Exodus 14:24-15:21 (crossing the Red Sea) (6) Isaiah 60:1-13 (the promise of Jerusalem) (7) Job 38:2-28 (Lord’s answer to Job) (8) 2 Kings 2:1-22 (the assumption of Elijah) (9) Jeremiah 31:31-34 (New Covenant) (10) Joshua 1:1-9 (Entering the Promised Land) (11) Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Valley of Dry Bones) (12) Daniel 3:1-29 (The Three Youths) 

The final reading leads into the Song of the Three Children and is not followed by a prayer with kneeling, but is followed by the prokeimenon of the Eucharistic Liturgy. 

In Roman Catholicism, the Vigil consists of four parts:

1. Service of Light 

2. Liturgy of the Word

3. Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows

4. Holy Eucharist

Because the new liturgical day begins at sunset, the vigil starts between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter outside the church, where an Easter fire is kindled and the Paschal Candle is blessed and then lit. The candle will be used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at baptisms and funerals, reminding all that Christ is “light and life.”

After the candle has been lit, the ancient dramatic rite of Lucernarium begins. The deacon carries the candle through the nave of the church which is in complete darkness, stopping three times to chant an acclamation such as “Christ our Light” or “Light of Christ” (Lumen Christi) to which the people respond “Thanks be to God” or “Deo Gratias.” As the candle proceeds through the church, all present receive candles which are lit from the Paschal candle. As this symbolic Light of Christ spreads throughout those gathered, the darkness is decreased. The deacon, priest, or a cantor now chants the Exsultet (also known as the “Easter Proclamation”) after which the people are seated for the Liturgy of the Word. Once the candle has been placed on its stand in the sanctuary, the lights of the church are switched on and the assembly extinguish their candles. Though in some churches the custom is to continue the liturgy by candlelight or without any lights until the Gloria.

The Liturgy of the Word consists of seven readings from the Old Testament (Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:15-15:1; Isaiah 54:4-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; Ezekiel 36:16-17, 18-28. The account of the crossing of the Red Sea is given special attention since this event is at the center of the Passover, in which Christ’s death and resurrection is the fulfillment of. Each reading is followed by a psalm or a biblical canticle sung responsively and a prayer relating what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ. After the readings are finished, the candles are lit on the altar and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is sung for the first time since before Lent, and the church bells and organ, silent since that point on Holy Thursday, are sounded again–although it is customary in some churches to have no organ playing during Lent at all, except when accompanying hymns. The Gospel of the Resurrection then follows, along with a homily.

At that point, the water of baptismal font is blessed any catechumens and candidates for full communion are initiated into the church by baptism and/or confirmation. After the celebration of these sacraments of initiation, the congregation renews their baptismal vows and receive the sprinkling of baptismal water. The prayers of the faithful then follow. After the prayers, the Liturgy of the Eucharist continues as normal. This is the first mass of Easter Day. During the service, the newly baptized receive Holy Communion for the first time. According to the Missal, the Eucharist should finish before dawn. 

In the Anglican Communion, the Easter Vigil is not universal but its use has become far more common in recent decades. The service follows more or less the same form as the Roman Catholic one. Though in the Anglican service, there are up to nine readings from the Old Testament. And the Gloria is sung after the Baptism or Renewal of Baptismal Vows. Confirmation only happens if a bishop is present since he/she is the only one who can confirm someone. 

The Lutheran service is also similar. And like in Anglicanism, the service is enjoying a renewed popularity. The Easter Vigil is also a very important service in Eastern Orthodoxy as well and commences at midnight Saturday.