The entire liturgical year culminates in the Easter Vigil, an ancient liturgy celebrated on the night before Easter Sunday. It was initially an all-night vigil that started in the middle of the night and didn’t end until the first rays of dawn when the celebration of Mass began.
For early Christians, it was a way to welcome the rising of the Son of God, who dispels the darkness of night.
It was eventually shortened and pushed back earlier in the evening, but many of the same rituals are performed with great solemnity. The Easter Vigil is a beautiful experience, one that immerses a person into the very heart of the Paschal Mystery.
Below is a brief guide to the Easter Vigil, along with reflections by Pope Benedict XVI, who frequently meditated on the liturgy during his Easter Vigil homilies.
First Part: The Liturgy of Light (Lucernarium)
The church is shrouded in darkness as a fire is lighted outside the church and the Easter candle is lit from it. The candle represents Jesus Christ, the light of the world. The deacon or priest processes into the dark church and stops three times, proclaiming “Christ, our Light!” By the time he reaches the sanctuary the entire church is blazing with candles that were lit from the Easter candle.
First there is the fire that becomes light. As the procession makes its way through the church, shrouded in the darkness of the night, the light of the Paschal Candle becomes a wave of lights, and it speaks to us of Christ as the true morning star that never sets – the Risen Lord in whom light has conquered darkness.
The Easter Proclamation
When the Easter candle arrives in the sanctuary, the deacon chants the “Easter Proclamation” (also called the Exsultet, from its first word in Latin, “Rejoice”), an ancient hymn that speaks of the many mysteries of this night.
The great hymn of the Exsultet, which the deacon sings at the beginning of the Easter liturgy, points us quite gently towards a further aspect. It reminds us that this object, the candle, has its origin in the work of bees. So the whole of creation plays its part. In the candle, creation becomes a bearer of light. But in the mind of the Fathers, the candle also in some sense contains a silent reference to the Church,. The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees. It builds up the community of light. So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’être is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.
Second Part: The Liturgy of the Word
A number of readings are read, still in the darkness of the church. From Genesis through the New Testament, God’s marvelous plan is unfolded. The readings are often interspersed with chanted passages or hymns.
The Church wishes to offer us a panoramic view of whole trajectory of salvation history, starting with creation, passing through the election and the liberation of Israel to the testimony of the prophets by which this entire history is directed ever more clearly towards Jesus Christ. In the liturgical tradition all these readings were called prophecies. Even when they are not directly foretelling future events, they have a prophetic character, they show us the inner foundation and orientation of history. They cause creation and history to become transparent to what is essential. In this way they take us by the hand and lead us towards Christ, they show us the true Light.
Third Part: The Baptismal Liturgy
Depending on the circumstances of each parish, a baptismal liturgy is performed. This is the liturgy at which all those who have been preparing to join the Church, or to complete their sacraments as older children or adults, are initiated into the Christian community. The celebration of Baptism (for those who were not Christian) or a Profession of Faith (for those Christians already baptized in a Protestant tradition who are becoming Catholic) and Confirmation takes place at this time. Later on in the Mass, the neophytes, as they are now called, will receive their First Communion.
Regardless of whether someone will be baptized or not, the water of the baptismal font is blessed in order to prepare for those who will be washed clean from their sins and reborn in the death of Christ. Those present renew their baptismal vows.
Baptism is more than a bath, a purification. It is more than becoming part of a community. It is a new birth. A new beginning in life. The passage of the Letter to the Romans which we have just read says, in words filled with mystery, that in Baptism we have been “grafted” onto Christ by likeness to his death. In Baptism we give ourselves over to Christ – he takes us unto himself, so that we no longer live for ourselves, but through him, with him and in him; so that we live with him and thus for others.
Fourth Part: The Liturgy of the Eucharist
The liturgy draws to its culmination and conclusion with the celebration of the holy Eucharist, in which the newly baptized will partake for the first time.
As the day of the liturgical assembly, it is the day for encounter with God through Jesus Christ who as the Risen Lord encountered his followers on the first day, Sunday, after they had found the tomb empty. The structure of the week is overturned. No longer does it point towards the seventh day, as the time to participate in God’s rest. It sets out from the first day as the day of encounter with the Risen Lord. This encounter happens afresh at every celebration of the Eucharist, when the Lord enters anew into the midst of his disciples and gives himself to them, allows himself, so to speak, to be touched by them, sits down at table with them.
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