The first Easter Vigil I ever attended was in 1986 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in College Station, Texas. That year, a dozen or so men and women entered into full communion with the Church, and thanks be to God, I was one of them. Though I’d spent nearly a year in RCIA1 – in prayer, study, and preparation – nothing could have fully prepared me for that night: it was glorious, moving, and awe-inspiring. As one of the oldest and most elaborate liturgies of the Church, the Vigil is something that must be experienced to truly be appreciated.2 Yet sadly, all too often when we hear people speak of the Easter Vigil, the focus is on how long it is. And while it’s true that this extraordinary celebration of the Mass can last up to 3 hours, to focus primarily on its length is an injustice – one that I’d like to help rectify by letting you in on what you’re missing.
Part of the problem is that many people have no idea what the Vigil is all about. Their only source of information is often hearsay – they’ve never been! But if we break down the Vigil into its parts and come to understand its structure, it will make more sense to us and we’ll be able to appreciate what’s actually happening. When we have a context for what takes place, our hearts and minds are better prepared, and we might even find ourselves inspired to attend this beautiful celebration!
When we take a look at the overall structure of the Easter Vigil, we find that there are essentially four parts:
- The Service of Light
- Liturgy of the Word
- Liturgy of Baptism and Christian Initiation
- Liturgy of the Eucharist
Part I: The Service of Light
Darkness and Light
The significance of starting in darkness needs little explanation: disobedience and sin have darkened our hearts, which only the Light of Christ can dispel. “It represents all darkness, and all the meanings of darkness…evil thoughts, motivations, deeds; all that is hidden and secret, deceitful and dishonest, divisive and abusive, immoral and sinful. It’s the darkness of our world, and the darkness in my heart. If I come to the vigil and restlessly and impatiently fidget in the dark ‘until something happens,’ I miss the power of what is about to happen. So, we prepare by readying ourselves to experience the darkness. It is distasteful and reprehensible, embarrassing and humbling, fearful and despairing.”3
If possible, the congregation gathers outside the Church where a fire has been kindled. This new fire is blessed and from it, a candle is lit – the Paschal Candle, representing the “light of Christ, rising in glory.”4 After the candle is processed in, all follow and enter the church in silence. With the candle in place – front and centre – the Exultet, or Easter Proclamation, is sung. This “ancient and beautiful poetic hymn of praise to God…may be as old as Saint Ambrose (d. 397) and has been part of the Roman tradition since the ninth century.”5
Part II: Liturgy of the Word
A Story for All Ages
Then, we turn to Scripture. Beginning with the book of Genesis, we unpack the “history of our salvation culminating in Christ.”6 Through God’s saving deeds we see just how much He loves us and continually calls us back. This part of the Vigil, called the Liturgy of the Word, consists of 4 – 7 readings from the Old Testament and two readings from the New Testament. It might sound like a lot, but there’s something so wonderful and dramatic about it. The church is still cloaked in darkness, and light emanates from only one source – God’s Word. Between each reading, “the faithful are encouraged to meditate…by the singing of a responsorial psalm, followed by a silent pause, and then by the celebrant’s prayer.”7
Once the last Old Testament passage is read, smaller candles are lit from the Paschal Candle. The fire is ‘passed along’ to all gathered until, soon, the entire sanctuary is ablaze in light. Bells suddenly begin to ring, and we are ready to greet our Lord, recognizing that He alone is the source of our hope. We exult in the news that He is Risen, that death has no power over Him.8 As both the light and the sound of bells fill the space, we are reminded of another important aspect of our faith: how it was handed down from the apostles and continues to spread through the ministry of the Church.
Part III: Liturgy of Baptism and Christian Initiation
Becoming Part of the Family
And precisely at that moment, we see the same thing happening in our midst: the faith is passed on as catechumens (those who have never been baptized) and candidates (those who have been baptized in other Christian denominations) prepare to join the Church. Donning white garments, the catechumens are either sprinkled with – or immersed into – the waters of life. Then all are anointed with Holy Chrism and are confirmed into the Catholic faith. We invite the saints – the holy souls in heaven (still very much a part of the Church) – to intercede for us as we pray the Litany of Saints.
This part of the celebration is particularly special, for when we see the eager anticipation with which these men and women embrace the faith, our own faith is affirmed, and we make our baptismal promises once again with renewed purpose and conviction.
Part IV: The Liturgy of the Eucharist
Feed Me, I’m Yours!
Finally, we are fed with the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ in Holy Communion. For the first time, the newest members of our community also join us at the Eucharistic Table. In a very real way, we’ve saved the best for last and relish the chance to share this meal together, the source and sign of our unity. Besides, what would a celebration be without food?
All the Bells & Whistles
Beyond the brief descriptions I’ve given here, it’s hard to say exactly what to expect. Each parish does things a bit differently, and this is apparently how it should be; for the rubrics of the Roman Missal remind us that “this ‘mother of all vigils’ is the ‘greatest and most noble of all solemnities and it is to be unique in every single Church.’”9 So it’s time to pull out all the stops, which for some individual parishes could mean anything from a schola choir complete with Gregorian chant to liturgical dancers and a rock band. Don’t you just love the Church?!? I sure do. And truly one of the best ways to experience it is to participate in her celebration of Easter, especially the Vigil, for then you will begin to understand the glory, awe, and majesty of the Resurrection.
– Kelley Holy
1 RCIA stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the program through which adults become full members of the Catholic Church.
2 Rev. John Trigilio Jr., Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, and Rev. Monsignor James Cafone, Catholic Mass for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2011), 44.
3 “Preparing for the Easter Vigil Liturgy,” Online Ministries of Creighton University [online resource]; available from
http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/Lent/prep-eastervigil.html; Internet; accessed 26 March 2015.
4 “The Roman Missal and the Easter Vigil,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [website]; available from
http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/triduum/roman-missal-and-the-easter-vigil.cfm ; Internet; accessed 26 March 2015.
5 Carl E. Olson, “The Easter Triduum: Entering into the Paschal Mystery,” Catholic Education Resource Center (CERC); available from
http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/the-easter-triduum-entering-into-the-paschal-mystery.html; Internet; accessed 27 March 2015.
6 Trigilio, Brighenti, and Cafone, Catholic Mass for Dummies, 45.
7 “The Roman Missal and the Easter Vigil,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
8 Cf. Romans 6:3-11
9 “The Roman Missal and the Easter Vigil,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.