(A) THE EASTER VIGIL
According to a most ancient tradition, this night is ‘one of vigil for the Lord’, and the Vigil celebrated during it, to commemorate that Holy night when the Lord rose from the dead, is regarded as the ‘mother of all Holy vigils’. For in that night the Church keeps vigil, waiting for the resurrection of the Lord, and celebrates the sacraments of Christian initiation.
THE MEANING OF THE NOCTURNAL CHARACTER OF THE EASTER VIGIL
‘The entire celebration of the Easter Vigil takes place at night. It should not begin before nightfall; it should end before daybreak on Sunday’. This rule is to be taken according to its strictest sense. Those abuses and practices which have crept in many places in violation of this ruling, whereby the Easter Vigil is celebrated at the time of day that is customary to celebrate anticipated Sunday Masses are reprehensible. Those reasons which have been advanced in some quarters for the anticipation of the Easter Vigil, such as lack of public order, are not put forward in connection with Christmas night, nor other gatherings of various kinds.
The Passover Vigil, in which the Hebrews kept watch for the Lord’s passover which was to free them from slavery to Pharaoh, is an annual commemoration. It prefigured the true Pasch of Christ that was to come, the night that is of true liberation, in which ‘destroying the bonds of death, Christ rose as victor from the depths’.
From the very outset the Church has celebrated that annual Pasch, which is the solemnity of solemnities, above all by means of a night vigil. For the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our faith and hope, and through Baptism and Confirmation we are inserted into the paschal mystery of Christ, dying, buried, and raised with him, and with him we shall also reign. The full meaning of Vigil is a waiting for the coming of the Lord.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE EASTER VIGIL AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ITS DIFFERENT ELEMENTS AND PARTS
The order for the Easter Vigil is so arranged that after the service of light and the Easter proclamation (which is the first part of the Vigil), Holy Church meditates on the wonderful works which the Lord God wrought for his people from the earliest times (the second part or Liturgy of the Word), to the moment when, together with those new members reborn in Baptism (third part), she is called to the table prepared by the Lord for his Church, the commemoration of his death and resurrection, until he comes (fourth part). This Liturgical Order must not be changed by anyone on his own initiative.
The first part consists of symbolic acts and gestures, which require that they be performed in all their fullness and nobility, so that their meaning, as explained by the introductory words of the celebrant and the liturgical prayers, may be truly understood by the faithful.
In so far as possible, a suitable place should be prepared outside the church for the blessing of the new fire, whose flames should be such that they genuinely dispel the darkness and light up the night.
The paschal candle should be prepared in advance. For effective symbolism it must be made of wax, never be artificial, be renewed each year, be only one in number, and be of sufficiently large size so that it may evoke the truth that Christ is the light of the world. It is blessed with the signs and words prescribed in the Missal or by the Conference of Bishops.
The Procession in which the people enter the church should be led by the light of the paschal candle alone. Just as the children of Israel were guided by night by a pillar of fire, so similarly Christians follow the risen Christ. There is no reason why to each response ‘Thanks be to God’ there should not be added some acclamation in honour of Christ.
The light from the paschal candle should be gradually passed to the candles which it is fitting that all present should hold in their hands, the electric lighting being switched off.
The Deacon makes the Easter proclamation, which tells by means of a great poetic text the whole Easter mystery in the context of the economy of salvation. In case of necessity, where there is no deacon, and the celebrating priest is unable to sing it, a cantor may do so. Bishops’ Conferences may adapt this proclamation by inserting into it acclamations from the people.
The readings from sacred scripture constitute the second part of the Vigil. They give an account of the outstanding deeds of the history of salvation, which the faithful are helped to meditate calmly upon by the singing of the responsorial psalm, by a silent pause and by the celebrant’s prayer.
The restored Order for the Vigil has seven readings from the Old Testament chosen from the Law and the Prophets, which are everywhere in use according to the most ancient tradition of East and West, and two readings from the New Testament, namely from the Apostle and from the Gospel. Thus the Church, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets’ explains Christ’s paschal mystery. Consequently, wherever this is possible, all the readings should be read so that the character of the Easter Vigil, which demands that it be somewhat prolonged, be respected at all costs.
Where, however, pastoral conditions require that the number of readings be reduced, there should be at least three readings from the Old Testament, taken from the Law and the Prophets; and the reading from Exodus chapter 14 with its canticle must never be omitted.
The typological import of the Old Testament texts is rooted in the New, and is made plain by the prayer pronounced by the celebrating priest after each reading; but it will also be helpful to introduce the people to the meaning of each reading by means of a brief introduction. This introduction may be given by the priest himself or by a deacon.
National or diocesan liturgical commissions will prepare aids for pastors.
Each reading is followed by the singing of a psalm, to which the people respond.
Melodies should be provided for these responses which are capable of promoting the people’s participartion and devotion.
Great care is to be taken that trivial songs do not take the place of the psalms.
After the readings from the Old Testament, the hymn ‘Gloria in excelsis’ is sung and the bells are rung in accordance with local custom; then the collect is recited, and the celebration moves on to the readings from the New Testament. There is read an exhortation from the Apostle on Baptism as insertion into Christ’s paschal mystery.
Then all stand and the priest intones the ‘Alleluia’ three times, each time raising the pitch. The people repeat after him. If it is necessary, the psalmist or cantor may sing the ‘Alleluia’, which the people then take up as an acclamation to be interjected between the verses of psalm 117, which is so often cited by the Apostles in their Easter preaching. Finally, the Resurrection of the Lord is proclaimed from the Gospel as the high point of the whole Liturgy of the Word. After the Gospel a homily is to be given, no matter how brief.
The third part of the Vigil is the baptismal liturgy. Christ’s passover and ours is now celebrated. This is given full expression in those churches which have a baptismal font, and more so when the Christian initiation of adults is held, or at least the Baptism of infants. Even if there are no candidates for Baptism, the blessing of Baptismal water should still take place in parish churches. If this blessing does not take place at the baptismal font but in the sanctuary, baptismal water should be carried afterwards to the baptistry there to be kept throughout the whole of paschal time. Where there are neither candidates for Baptism nor any need to bless the font, Baptism should be commemorated by blessing of water destined for sprinkling upon the people.
Next follows the renewal of baptismal promises, introduced by some words from the celebrating priest. The faithful reply to the questions put to them, standing and holding lighted candles in their hands. They are then sprinkled with water: in this way gestures and words recall to them the Baptism they have received. The celebrating priest sprinkles the people by passing through the main part of the church while all sing the antiphon ‘Vidi aquam’ or another suitable song of a baptismal character.
The celebration of the Eucharist forms the fourth part of the Vigil and marks its high point, for it is in the fullest sense the Easter Sacrament, that is to say the commemoration of the sacrifice of the Cross and the presence of the risen Christ, the completion of Christian initiation, and the foretaste of the eternal pasch.
Great care should be taken that this Eucharistic Liturgy is not celebrated in haste; indeed, all the rites and words must be given their full force – the General Intercessions in which for the first time the neophytes now as members of the faithful exercise their priesthood; the procession at the offertory in which the neophytes, if there are any, take part; the first, second or third Eucharistic Prayer, preferably sung, with their proper embolisms; and finally, Eucharistic Communion, as the moment of full participation in the mystery that is being celebrated. It is appropriate that at Communion there be sung psalm 117 with the antiphon ‘Pascha nostrum’, or psalm 33 with the antiphon ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia’, or some other song of Easter exultation.
It is fitting that in the Communion of the Easter Vigil full expression be given to the symbolism of the Eucharist, namely by consuming the Eucharist under the species of both bread and wine. Local Ordinaries will consider the appropriateness of such a concession and its ramifications.
SOME PASTORAL CONSIDERATIONS
The Easter Vigil Liturgy should be celebrated in such a way as to offer to the Christian people the riches of the prayers and rites. It is therefore important that authenticity be respected, that the participation of the faithful be promoted, and that the celebration should not take place without servers, readers and choir exercising their role.
It would be desirable if on occasion provision were made for several communities to assemble in one church, wherever their proximity one to another or small numbers mean that a full and festive celebration could not otherwise take place.
The celebration of the Easter Vigil for special groups is not to be encouraged, since above all in this Vigil the faithful should come together as one and should experience a sense of ecclesial community.
Faithful who are absent from their parish on vacation should be urged to participate in the liturgical celebration in the place where they happen to be.
In announcements concerning the Easter Vigil care should be taken not to present it as the concluding period of Holy Saturday; rather it should be stressed that the Easter Vigil is celebrated ‘during Easter night’, and that it is one single act of worship. Pastors should be advised that in giving catechesis to the people they should be taught to participate in the Vigil in its entirety.
For a better celebration of the Easter Vigil, it is necessary that Pastors themselves have an ever deeper knowledge of both texts and rites, so as to give a proper mystagogical catechesis to the people.
(B) EASTER DAY
Mass is to be celebrated on Easter Day with great solemnity. It is appropriate that the penitential rite on this day take the form of a sprinkling with water blessed at the Vigil, during which the antiphon ‘Vidi aquam’, or some other song of baptismal character should be sung. The stoups at the entrance to the church should also be filled with the same water.
The tradition of celebrating baptismal Vespers on Easter Day with the singing of psalms during the procession to the font should be maintained where it is still in force, and as appropriate restored.
The paschal candle has its proper place either by the ambo or by the altar and should be lit at least in all the more solemn liturgical celebrations of the season until Pentecost Sunday, whether at Mass, or at Morning or Evening Prayer. After the Easter season the candle should be kept with honour in the baptistry, so that in the celebration of Baptism the candles of the baptised may be lit from it. In the celebration of Funerals the paschal candle should be placed near the coffin to indicate that the death of a Christian is his own passover. The paschal candle should not otherwise be lit nor placed in the sanctuary outside the Easter season.
– Given at Rome, at the Offices of the Congregation for Divine Worship, 16 January 1988