The Easter Vigil, also called the Paschal Vigil or the Great Vigil of Easter, is a service held in many Christian churches as the first official celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. Historically, it is during this service that people (especially children) are baptized and that adult catechumens are received into full communion with the Church. It is held in the hours of darkness between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Day—most commonly in the evening of Holy Saturday—but is considered to be the first celebration of Easter Day, since the Christian tradition considers feasts and other days of observance where Masses are celebrated to begin at sunset of the previous day.
In the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, the Easter Vigil is the most important Mass of the liturgical year as well as the first celebration of the Eucharist during the fifty-day long celebration of Easter, and is marked by the first use since the beginning of Lent of the acclamatory word "Alleluia", a distinctive feature of the liturgy of the Easter season. Similarly, in Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, the Divine Liturgy which is celebrated during the Easter Vigil is the most elaborate and important of the ecclesiastical year. The Easter Vigil has enjoyed a substantial revival among the Lutherans.
The original twelve Old Testament readings for the Easter Vigil survive in an ancient manuscript belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. The Armenian Easter Vigil also preserves what is believed to be the original length of the traditional gospel reading of the Easter Vigil, i.e., from the Last Supper account to the end of the Gospel according to Matthew.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Easter Vigil consists of four parts:
- The Service of Light
- The Liturgy of the Word
- Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows
- Holy Eucharist
Because the new liturgical day begins at sunset, the vigil begins between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday outside the church, where an Easter fire is blessed by the celebrant. This new fire symbolizes the radiance of the Risen Christ dispelling the darkness of sin and death. The Paschal candle is blessed and then lit. This Paschal candle will be used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary of the church or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at baptisms and funerals, reminding all, that Christ is "light and life."
Once the candle has been lit there follows the ancient and dramatic rite of the Lucernarium, in which the candle is carried by a priest through the nave of the church, itself in complete darkness, stopping three times to chant an acclamation such as 'Christ our Light' or 'Light of Christ' (Lumen Christi), to which the assembly responds 'Thanks be to God' or 'Deo Gratias'. This ceremony was once common in the Church, often occurred at Vespers and is still retained by Lutherans as official Vespers liturgical practice. Some congregations have restored this practice at Vespers, but it is most commonly seen at the Easter Vigil.
As the candle proceeds through the church, all present (i.e. those who have received the "Light of Christ") receive candles which are lit from the Paschal candle. As this symbolic "Light of Christ" spreads throughout those gathered, the darkness is decreased.
Once the candle has been placed on its stand in the sanctuary, the lights in the church are switched on and the assembly extinguish their candles (although in some churches, the custom is to continue the liturgy by candlelight until the Gloria).
The priest, deacon or a cantor now chants the Exsultet (also called the "Easter Proclamation" or "Paschal Praeconium"), after which the people take their seats as the liturgy of the word begins.
The Liturgy of the Word consists of seven readings from the Old Testament, although it is permitted to reduce this number for pastoral reasons (if reduced, it is customary to use readings 1, 3, 5 and 7). The account of the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea is given particular attention in the readings since this event is at the centre of the Jewish Passover, which Christians believe Christ's death and resurrection is the fulfillment of. Each reading is followed by a psalm and a prayer relating what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ. After these readings conclude, the Easter Vigil proper is finished, the celebrant removes his cope and puts on a chasuble and the candles are lit on the altar, and the Mass of the Resurrection begins. After the singing of the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is sung for the first time since before Lent (with the exception of Holy Thursday, which is the only time it is heard during the 40 days of Lent - unless a special solemnity has fallen during the days of Lent), and the church bells and the 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. (In the pre-Vatican II rite, the statues, which have been covered during Passiontide, are unveiled at this time.) The opening collect is read. A reading from the Epistle to the Romans is proclaimed, followed by the chanting of Psalm 118. The Alleluia is sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent (or, in the pre-Vatican II rite, since Septuagesima) - however, it is a very solemn alleluia at this time. The Gospel of the Resurrection then follows, along with a homily.
After the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, the water of the baptismal font is solemnly blessed and any catechumens and candidates for full communion are initiated into the church, by baptism and/or confirmation, respectively. 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 (of which the newly baptised are now a part) follow.
After the prayers, the Liturgy of the Eucharist continues as usual. This is the first Mass of Easter Day. During the Eucharist, the newly baptized receive Holy Communion for the first time. According to the rubrics of the Missal, the Eucharist should finish before dawn.
Byzantine Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy & Greek Catholicism
It should be noted that in the Byzantine tradition, the liturgy which corresponds structurally to the Easter Vigil of the Latin Church is the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday, celebrated on Saturday afternoon. This is the service which includes the lengthy series of Old Testament readings and the rites of Baptism and Chrismation, as in the Western practice. Though the current Roman Catholic practice of celebrating the Easter Vigil during the night suggests a similarity with the Byzantine-rite Matins and Liturgy of Pascha (which is held at midnight), this similarity is misleading in terms of the actual structure of the Holy Week and Easter services.
The Vesperal Liturgy recounts the Harrowing of Hell, at which time, according to Orthodox theology, the righteous dead were permitted to leave Hades and enter into Paradise. This Good News of Christ's triumph over death, the Church teaches, was at that time revealed only to the departed. The revelation to the living occurred when his empty tomb was discovered "very early in the morning, on the first day of the week" ( ). The Paschal Vigil is the recounting of that discovery of the empty tomb. For this reason, although technically the feast of Pascha begins at the Vesperal Liturgy, the paschal greeting is not exchanged, nor do the faithful break their fast until after the Paschal Vigil.
The order of the Paschal Vigil is as follows (with some minor local variations):
- The Midnight Office is served on Holy Saturday shortly before midnight. At its conclusion, all the lights in the church are extinguished except for the unsleeping flame on the Holy Table (altar), and all wait in silence and darkness. In Orthodox churches, when possible, the Holy Light arrives from the Holy Sepulchre during Holy Saturday afternoon and it is used to light anew the unsleeping flame.
- At the stroke of midnight, the priest censes around the Holy Table, and lights his candle from the unsleeping flame. Then the Holy Doors are opened and all the people light their candles from the priest's candle. Then, all the clergy and the people exit the church and go in procession three times around it while singing a hymn of the resurrection: "Thy resurrection, O Christ our saviour, the angels in heaven sing; enable us on earth to glorify Thee with purity of heart." During the procession the church bells ring incessantly. This procession recounts the journey of the Myrrhbearers to the Tomb of Christ.
- Before the front doors of the church, the chief celebrant gives the blessing for the beginning of Matins. The clergy, followed by the people, sing the Paschal troparion, and the Paschal greeting "Christ is risen!" "Truly He is risen!" is exchanged for the first time. Then, everyone enters the church singing the troparion.
- The rest of Matins is celebrated according to special Paschal rubrics. Everything in the service is intended to be exultant and full of light. Nothing in the service is read, but everything is sung joyfully. During the Paschal Canon, the priest censes the church, and exchanges the Paschal greeting with the faithful.
- The Paschal Hours are sung. These are entirely different than at any other time of the year.
- The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated as usual, but with special features added that are unique to the Paschal season. At the end of the service, the priest blesses the Artos, a large loaf of leavened bread, which represents the Resurrected Christ. This is then set next to the Icon of the Resurrection and is venerated by the faithful throughout Bright Week
After the procession, the priest carries a special triple candlestick, known as the Paschal trikirion, and the deacon also carries a special Paschal candle. The candles lit at midnight are held by the people throughout the entire service, just as is done by the newly baptized. During the Vigil, normally near the end of Matins, the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom is proclaimed. Following the dismissal of the Divine Liturgy blessed eggs which have been dyed red are usually distributed to the people for the breaking of the Great Lenten fast, and baskets of food for the feast that follows are blessed with holy water. The service generally finishes around 4:00 a.m. There is usually not a service on Sunday morning, everything for the feast having been accomplished during the Vigil. But on Sunday afternoon there is a special, Paschal Vespers, at which the Gospel is chanted in many languages (called "Vespers of Love" in some traditions).
The week that begins on the Sunday of Pascha is called Bright Week, and is considered to be one continuous day. The Holy Doors of the iconostasis are left open from the moment they were opened at midnight throughout all of Bright Week, being closed only at the end of the Ninth Hour on Bright Saturday. Most of the features of the Paschal Vigil being repeated, with only slight variations: the tone in which the services are chanted changes from day to day, Matins and the Divine Liturgy are celebrated separately, and the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom is not repeated. Also, at the end of Liturgy (or, more traditionally, Matins) there is a crucession (religious procession) around the outside of the church every day (or at least on Bright Monday). The entire week is a fast-free period, even on Wednesday and Friday, which are normally fast days throughout the year.
In ancient times, the faithful would remain in the church following the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on the afternoon of Holy Saturday, and listen to the reading of the entire Acts of the Apostles, remaining until the beginning of the Midnight Office. They were given a cup of blessed wine, some bread and dried fruit to give them strength. Thus at that time the Paschal Vigil would have actually begun on the afternoon of Saturday and not ended until dawn on Sunday morning.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches consist of several different liturgical traditions.
Indian Orthodox Church
In the Indian Orthodox Church the Vigil begins in the evening after the service on Good Friday. The faithful spend time in the church reading from the scriptures and singing hymns.
The Church celebrates this most important festival in the church calendar, as per the Gregorian Calendar.
Traditionally, the principal service which corresponds to the Easter Vigil in Eastern and Western rites would be conducted in the early hours of the morning, typically at around 3 a.m. on Sunday. In many cities, however, the service is conducted after 6:00 p.m. on Saturday; this is also the case for practical reasons in former Christian lands of the Oriental Orthodox rite which now have Muslim majorities.
Easter marks the change in the set of prayers said and sung before the Eucharist. From Easter to the Feast of the Cross on September 14, the prayers follow the Liturgy of Easter.Traditionally the Prayers of the Night and Midnight hours are said. Then follows the most dramatic moment in the service, the Announcement, when all the lights in the church are extinguished other than from the Altar candles and those held by those serving at the Altar. The Veil separating the sanctuary from the congregation is drawn aside. The chief celebrant stands in the centre of the sanctuary, holding a cross covered in a red embroidered cloth. This is the cross which has been used in the Good Friday service for the procession commemorating the Carrying of the Cross to Calvary and then ritually embalmed and buried in a small coffin-shaped box behind the Altar, to commemorate the Burial. The chief celebrant is flanked by the altar-servers, holding candles and hand-bells. In a loud voice, the chief celebrant announces to the congregation, “Dearly beloved, I bring you all news of great joy. Our Lord Jesus Christ has resurrected from the dead and defeated His enemies.” Amid the ringing of the hand-bells and church-bells, the congregation responds, "Truly, we believe that He is risen!” This is done three times. The Easter Procession follows, in which the entire congregation, holding lighted candles, participates with the celebrants and the altar servers. The cross, covered in the red veil, used in the Announcement, is carried in procession around the church. The hymn sung during the procession describes Christ's answer to Mary Magdalene, when she sees him at the tomb and mistakes him for the gardener:
- O Mary! I am the Gardener truly,
- I am the One, Who established Paradise.
- I am the One Who was killed,
- I am the One Who entered the grave.
- Touch Me not, for I have not ascended to the Father.
- That I have gloriously arisen from that grave,
- Give thou this good news to the disciples.
Following this, the chief celebrant "celebrates" the Cross, by blessing the four directions while the Trisagion is said.
The chief celebrant gives the Kiss of Peace, commemorating Christ's wishing peace on the Apostles. This is passed on to the congregation. On this day alone the Kiss of Peace is given twice.
Prayers of the Morning hours follow, and the Holy Qurbana is then conducted as usual.
Since Easter also marks the end of the Great 50-day Lent the Service of Reconciliation (Shubhkono) is also held on this day. Special prayers are said.At the end of the service, instead of the normal touching by the Chief Celebrant’s hand of the foreheads of each member of the congregation in blessing, the Easter Cross is used. From Easter to the Feast of Ascension, the Easter Cross is moved from the centre of the church to a stand inside the sanctuary. This stand, called Golgotha, is itself shaped as a large cross. The Easter Cross is set on its head, and the whole structure looks like a Patriarchal Cross. It had been set up in mid-Lent in the centre of the church and the faithful would kiss the cloth covering it while entering and leaving the church.
Although the Easter Vigil is not universal in the Anglican Communion, its use has become far more common in recent decades. Formerly it was only common in parishes in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, having been abandoned at the Reformation and recovered by the 19th-century Tractarian movement.
The service, as provided for example in the current version of the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (TEC), the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Times and Seasons volume of the Church of England's Common Worship, follows more or less the same form as the Roman Catholic service described above, with some variations in texts and ritual. The four-part structure of the Vigil is retained, though in the TEC rite the service of baptism follows immediately after the readings from the Old Testament.
The service normally consists of four parts:
- The Service of Light.
- The Service of Lessons.
- Christian Initiation, or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
- The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion.
Some of the other particular differences from the Roman Catholic observance include:
- The Gloria is said after the Baptism or Renewal of Baptismal Vows. The Te Deum Laudamus or the Pascha Nostrum may be used instead.
- The number and particular passages in the Service of Lessons differs. There are up to nine (as opposed to seven), and all are from the Hebrew Bible.
Confirmations occur only when the bishop is present, because, in the Anglican tradition, only a bishop may administer confirmation.
The Easter Vigil, like the Christmas Vigil, remained a popular festive worship service in the Lutheran Churches during and after the Reformation. It was often celebrated in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday. As in all Lutheran services of this period, vernacular language was used in combination with traditional liturgical texts in Latin (such as the Exsultet). Elements which were considered unbiblical and superstitious where eliminated, such as the blessing of the new fire, the consecration of the candles or of water. Emphasis was placed on the scriptural readings, congregational singing and on the Easter sermon. In Wittenberg the Easter Gospel (Matthew 28. 1 - 10; 16 - 20) was sung in the German language in a tone similar to the tone of the Exsultet - a gospel tone only used for this worship service. The devastation caused by the Thirty Years' War also led to a decline in worship culture in the Lutheran Churches in Germany. The rationalism of the 18th Century also brought about a change in worship habits and customs. The liturgical movement that arose in the German Lutheran Churches after World War I rediscovered the Easter Vigil in its reformational form. In an article from 1934 for the Liturgical Conference of Lower Saxony and for the Berneuchen Movement Wilhelm Stählin appealed to fellow Lutherans for an Easter service on early Easter Sunday or on Holy Saturday night using elements from the Missal, the Orthodox tradition and from reformational service orders. An order for the Easter Vigil was published in 1936, and several Lutheran congregations in Hannover observed the Easter Vigil in 1937. Since then the Easter Vigil has experienced a revival in many parishes throughout Germany. This movement within the German Lutheran Churches contributed to a revival and revision of the Roman Catholic order for the Easter Vigil by Pope Pius XII in 1951. The "Agende II" for the Evangelical Lutheran Churches and Parishes in Germany from 1960 gave the "Osternacht" (German for "Easter Vigil") a normative form. The most recent agenda for the Easter Vigil was published by the "Vereinigte Evangelisch-lutherische Kirche" in 2008. The order for the Easter Vigil is comparable to the order of service used by American Lutherans. It is characterized, however, by a number of Gregorian chants, medieval and reformational hymns which have been in use in German worship services for centuries.
In North America the Lutherans, similarly to the Anglicans, have in many places returned to the observance of the Easter Vigil [including the restoration of the blessing of the new fire]. The recent service books of both the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who use the new "Evangelical Lutheran Worship" book, assume the service as normative.
In the Lutheran Service Book, the Altar Book, the Vigil comprises the Service of Light with the Exsultet; the Service or Readings with up to 12 readings; the Service of Holy Baptism at which candidates may be baptized, the baptized confirmed, and the congregation remember its Baptism into Jesus; the Service of Prayer, featuring an Easter litany; and concluding with the Service of the Sacrament, at which the Holy Eucharist is celebrated.