Vigilia Paschalis In Nocte Sancta
By most ancient tradition, this is the night of keeping vigil for the Lord, in which following the Gospel admonition the faithful, carrying lighted lamps in their hands, should be like those looking for the Lord when he returns, so that at his coming he may find them awake and have them at his table (Roman Missal). The missal accentuates that this night’s vigil is the greatest and most noble of all solemnities. This is an ancient vigil laden with the expectation of the Messiah’s coming. Saint Jerome writes, ”It was a tradition among the Jews that the Messiah would come during the night at the hour when the Passover had been celebrated in Egypt…that I think is why we have the tradition from the apostles that the congregation is not to be dismissed before Midnight during the Easter Vigil, since they await the coming of Christ at that hour.” Anyone who participates in the Mass of the Night may receive Communion again at Mass during the day.
The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night is arranged in four parts. After the Lucernarium and Easter Proclamation, Holy Church meditates on the wonders the Lord God has done for his people from the beginning trusting in his word and promise (The Liturgy of the Word) until as day approaches with new members born in Baptism (the third part) the Church is called to the altar, the memorial of his death and Resurrection until he comes again.
“When the Easter vigil quote ‘speaks’ about initiation, it does so in terms that are a veritable evangelization of the cosmos. Fire, wind, wax, bees, light and darkness, water, oil, nakedness, bread, wine, aromas, tough and graceful words and gestures…” (The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation, edited by Aidan Kavanagh).
The Solemn Beginning of the Vigil
A fire is prepared outside the church (which is the subject of the header photograph of this blog) and the fire is blessed in these words:
Let us pray.
O God, who through your Son
bestowed upon the faithful the fire of your glory,
sanctify+ this new fire, we pray,
and grant that,
by these paschal celebrations,
we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires,
that with minds made pure
we may attain festivities of unending splendor.
Through Christ our Lord.
Why? This noble rite of immense simplicity proclaims the dignity of the created world that the Lord Jesus has redeemed through his death and Resurrection. The creature fire has been renewed to proclaim the glory of the his holy resurrection.
The sign of the cross is then cut into the candle and the Greek letters Alpha and Omega and the four numerals of the current year are cut into the candle.
Why? Nocent points out: ”He thus expresses in a few word and actions the entire doctrine of Saint Paul on Christ as Lord of the universe.” All creation belongs to him.
The priest then inserts five grains of incense into the candle, saying:
By his holy
and glorious wounds,
may Christ the Lord
guard us and protect us. Amen.
Why? This simple gesture sets for the mystery of the glorious death of the Savior in these words:
The priest then lights the Paschal Candle for the new fire and proclaims:
This is in the words of Kavanagh “a veritable evangelization of the cosmos!”
The Paschal Candle symbolizes the Risen Christ who has overcome the darkness of death. The Candle symbolizes that Christ was that pillar of fire that lead our ancestors through the desert to the promise land. The deacon chants: LUMEN CHRISTI! to which we respond: DEO GRATIAS! The church begins to flood with the blaze of hundreds of candles. A thrilling moment in which we enter into the joy that through God’s mercy sin and death are destroyed. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus is the true light that has come into the world to enlighten everyone, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Such a simple and clear and direct ritual unfolds for us the truth of the Gospel. God is light and in him there is no darkness (Jn. 1:5). And this ritual anticipates that in a few minutes our catechumens will be rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light. And this simple ritual moves us forward to that Eternal Day when in the heavenly Jerusalem there will be no need of moon or sun because God’s glory is its source of light and the Lamb its lamp (Rev. 22:5. See also Is. 60:19).
Here the Exsultet is proclaimed at the Vatican in 2011. Be sure to read the glorious text of the Exsultet, here in English and Latin.
The Liturgy Of The Word
The core of the mother of all Vigils is the extended reading of the Scriptures. Three readings from the Law, four from the Prophets and an Epistle and the Gospel of the Resurrection and their respective Psalms provide a rich fare from which the Risen Christ feeds us on this our annual Passover Feast. This extended service of readings in the light of the Paschal Candle speaks of the truth that the Risen Christ himself is teaching us in this final instruction of those to be baptized.
The first three reading from the Law speak of creation, sacrifice and freedom. In Genesis we read of the first creation in light of the Exultet just proclaimed in that the Eternal Word through whom all thing have come to be, has been incarnate in the world to bring about a new creation. Thus “ Be glad, let the earth rejoice as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King. Man whom God created in his image, male and female he created him, has been recreated. “ O happy fault that earned so great a Redeemer! Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the Eternal Father.
In the second reading we hear the account of Abraham and Isaac and we read them of types of a great mystery revealed in our sight. God did not spare his Son but handed him over for our sake. And the rescue of Isaac turns our thoughts to the Resurrection of Christ. The prophecy of old has been brought to fulfillment on this night all throughout the world as baptism is celebrated and the supreme Father of the faithful increase children of the promise by pouring out the grace of baptism
In the third proclamation we hear the account of the Exodus in a prose narrative followed by a poetic rendering in the Canticle of Miriam. Once again the readings unfold the Exultet: This is the night when once you led our forefathers, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
The Prophetic readings:
Isaiah 54:5-14 “The one who has become your husband is your Maker.” This prophetic text comes to fulfillment in the words of the Exultet: “O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.” Through baptism into Christ we are drawn into a union with the living God. The church has been born from the blood and water flowing from his pierced side and is truly his spouse. The lush imagery of the city with all its sapphires and rubies and walls of precious stones speaks of the radiance of the church who is the Bride of Christ. “In justice shall you be established” and in truth we have been justified through Christ and are at peace with God. The destruction of death shall not come near us since our enemy death has been annihilated through the death of Christ. As the Psalmist chants: “You did not let my enemies,” that is death, “rejoice over me.” Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through Christ Jesus who has turned our mourning into dancing.
Isaiah 55:1-11 “All who are thirsty come to the waters.” The prophetic text that invites the catechumen to baptism is a text that promises all of us that the Lord will give us the very Bread of Angels. “Come, receive grain and eat, drink wine and milk!” And the text continues: “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth, my word shall not return to the void, but shall do my will.” The Word of which the prophet speaks is the Eternal Word that has become incarnate in Jesus who has come to do the will of the Father. So then as the psalmist chants: “You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.” The words bear a mystery hidden from ages past but now revealed in Jesus in whom we are baptized. The baptismal font from which flows the grace of Christ which fills us with joy: “My strength and courage is the Lord and he has been my Savior!”
Baruch 3:9-15, 32:-4:4 This text drawn from the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel is brought to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ who is the Wisdom of God incarnate. The lovely personification of the stars: “before whom the stars at their posts shine and rejoice which he calls them, they answer, ‘Here we are!'” shining with joy for their Maker. Like the stars we too are called to shine for our Maker and answer: “Here we are!” We are eager to embrace the wisdom of God that he has revealed to us in Christ through whom we have the words of everlasting life. The law of the Lord of which the psalmist speaks is the New Law, that is the Holy Spirit who has been poured into the hearts of those who believe. We can trust that if we conduct our lives according to our baptismal dignity, our hearts will rejoice. The Law of the Lord is indeed “more precious that gold and sweeter than syrup.”
Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28 This prophet’s text speaks of our transformation in Christ. Whereas sin scatters and divides, grace unites and transforms. “I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statues.” What a powerful affirmation of grace. The Lord not only forgives us of sin but he can change our heart and his grace strengthen us to live by his statutes. May we never underestimate the power of grace that flows from our baptism into Christ. We must only desire to grow in union with him, as the psalmist chants: “Like a deer that longs for running streams, my soul longs for you, my God.” We will soon go to the altar of God and be filled with Easter Eucharist that fills us with gladness and joy on this night when in the words of the Exultet: “The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.” What a wonderful night when all over the world from the grandeur of Saint Peter in Rome to a humble chapel – the whole church rejoices as she draws nearer to the font in which hearts are made clean and new life begins.
After the readings from the scriptures of ancient Israel in the light of the Paschal Candle that opens up for us the mystery of this night, the altar candles are lit, bells are rung and the church rejoices as she chants the Gloria. Once again the words of the Exultet ring out: “Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy.” We fill the church with the mighty voices of all God’s people as we chant GLORIA!
Romans 6:3-11 In the Epistle Saint Paul sets forth a very developed theology of baptism. Can you imagine the joy all over the world during this Paschal night as these words ring in the hearts of the newly baptized: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death …so that just as Christ was raised form the dead …we too might live in the newness of life.” Life in Christ is a life of freedom. In the words of the Exultet: “O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son.” We have freedom in Christ for as Saint Paul says, for freedom we have been set free!
The all rise and the priest solemnly intones the Alleluia three times, raising his voice by a step each time as the cantor proclaims: “The stone which the builders rejected has been the cornerstone. It is wonderful in our eyes.” And on the Holy Night, the Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed which we anticipated in the Exultet: “This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld!”
The cantors begin the chanting the litany of the Saints that leads to the blessing of the water. Delight in the beautiful prayer of the Blessing of the Baptismal Water which evokes the image of the Spirit who hovered over the waters at the time of the creation; now that same Spirit hovers over the waters of the font to bring about a new creation in Christ. Calling to mind the waters of the great flood, the waters of the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan and the waters flowing from the wounded side of Jesus, the church prepares herself to fulfill the command of her Lord to baptize all nations. The movement of the ritual from the rejection of sin to the profession of faith that leads to baptism, the clothing with the white garment, the sealing with chrism, the candle lit from the Paschal candle form a lovely ritual sequence that unfolds the meaning of the epistle just proclaimed: “All you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” What great gift it is to be sealed with the Holy Spirit. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century put it this way: “He has anointed your forehead with oil, in the form of the seal you have received from God; this was that the seal might be impressed upon you and you might be consecrated to God.” The newly baptized and newly confirmed whose foreheads are glistening with the Holy Chrism will soon eat the Body and drink the Blood of the dead and risen Jesus who pledges eternal life. The Easter Eucharist is indeed the high point of the Vigil.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist
The Easter Vigil is indeed a veritable evangelization the cosmos and a liturgy of such beauty laden with so many symbols and rituals. However, such beauty does not eclipse the fact that the Mass of the Vigil is the most solemn of the year. The Eucharist is the Passover of the Church. The Eucharist is the manifestation of the Risen Christ. There would be no Eucharist if there were no Resurrection. This evening is very special in that the newly baptized among us will receive Holy Communion for the first time. The sacrament is our encounter with the Risen Jesus and the most excellent of mysteries is the center of the whole Christian life.
“Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed; let us then feast with joy in the Lord.”
The liturgy concludes with the dismissal with the added alleluias. with which we welcome the 50 days of Paschaltide.