Easter Vigil

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Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil service is the oldest of all Easter observances. It takes place late at night on Holy Saturday, though it officially marks the beginning of Easter Sunday celebrations. During the Middle Ages, the Easter Vigil service fell into a long, slow decline. In the second half of the twentieth century both Roman Catholics and Protestants began to revive this ancient service.

Early Christian Vigils

The word "vigil" comes from the Latin word vigilia, a noun which refers to the act of staying awake and alert in order to protect, guard, or look after something. In English we refer to this activity as keeping watch. In the specialized language of the Church a vigil is a nighttime prayer service, usually ending with a celebration of the Eucharist. Some scholars think that the early Christians held frequent vigils. They suspect that these vigils were motivated by the widely held belief that the Second Coming of Christ would occur at midnight. The selection of midnight as the hour of Christ's return may have been inspired by the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, a story from Christian scripture in which the long-awaited bridegroom, interpreted by many as a veiled reference to Christ, arrives at midnight (Matthew 25:1-13).

Early Christian Easter Vigils

The earliest historical record of a Christian Easter service comes from the region of Asia Minor, which included most of what is now the modern nation of Turkey, and dates back to about the middle of the second century. The faithful held this service on the evening of Passover and described it as a watch or vigil. It began some time after dark, lasted past midnight, and finally ended before dawn, when the roosters began to crow. This service celebrated the redemption of humanity that was brought about by the life, suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus Christ. It placed a special emphasis on Jesus' death on the cross as the moment of his greatest triumph. The end of the service was marked by an early form of the Eucharist. Historical records also indicate that the faithful fasted during the daylight hours preceding the service, breaking their fast with the eucharistic meal that closed the ceremony. Among the early Christians the Easter Vigil was one of the most well attended services of the year.

Historical records allow us to trace the celebration of Easter in Rome back to the year 165. The Roman Easter Vigil differed from that of Asia Minor, however, in that it was held on the Saturday evening following the start of Passover. This difference in timing gave rise to a long debate over the date on which to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the fourth century, the Council of Nicaea, an important meeting of early Christian leaders that gave birth to the Nicene Creed, decreed that all Christians adopt the Roman date for Easter (see also Easter, Date of).

Elements of the Easter Vigil Service

From early Christian times fires and lights served important functional and symbolic roles in the Easter Vigil (see also Easter Fires). Not only did lamps, candles, and torches light up the darkness, but they also served as symbols of Christ and the divine presence of God. This uncanny nighttime brightness led some to call the ceremony "the great service of light" and the evening itself "the night of illumination" or "the night of radiant splendor." An early Christian writer recorded the fact that Emperor Constantine (d. 337) "transformed the night of the sacred vigil into the brilliance of day, by lighting throughout the whole city . . . pillars of wax, while burning lamps illuminated every house, so that this nocturnal celebration was rendered brighter than the brightest day" (Weiser, 134). St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) described Holy Saturday evening as the "glowing night which links the splendor of burning lamps to the morning rays of the sun, thus producing continuous daylight without any darkness" (Weiser, 134). In Jerusalem the lighting of the lamps for the Easter feast had taken on a special, ceremonial quality by the end of the fourth century. This early, ceremonial lamp lighting gave birth to an Easter Vigil custom that survives today: the lighting of the paschal candle with newly kindled fire. The paschal candle is a very large candle used to shed light on the Bible passages read out loud during the Easter Vigil service. In explaining the origins of the paschal candle some researchers point to an ancient Christian service called the Lucernarium, a ceremonial lighting of the lamps in preparation for the evening prayer service. As time passed the Lucernarium became a service in its own right which included chanting, prayers, and psalms. Scholars believe that the early Christians based the Lucernarium on Jewish lamplighting rituals that preceded evening prayer. In time, however, the Christian observance disappeared. Some commentators think that the ceremony that surrounds the lighting of the paschal candle on Easter eve is all that remains of this ancient observance.

By the fourth century, especially after the Council of Nicaea, the Easter Vigil had emerged as the preferred occasion for baptisms, although in some places Pentecost served as an acceptable alternative date. This development coincided with the formation of Holy Week. During the first few centuries after Jesus' death, the faithful commemorated the entire story of his life, suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection at the Easter Vigil. By the late fourth century Christian communities had begun to separate out various elements of the story and assign their commemoration to different days in Holy Week. Thus, they honored the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, mourned Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday, and rejoiced in his resurrection at the Easter Vigil. Certain passages in Christian scripture cast baptism as a kind of spiritual death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11, Colossians 2:12). Therefore, Church leaders deemed it appropriate that baptisms be performed at the festival commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Since early Christian times the Easter Vigil service has included numerous, lengthy readings from the Bible. The readings begin with God's creation of the earth as told in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. They also include the story of ancient Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt. Other stories from the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, along with readings from the Hebrew prophets follow. The Bible readings close with a selection from Christian scripture concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christian authorities chose these passages because, presented together, they illustrate God's unfolding plan for humanity's redemption and salvation.

The Middle Ages and Beyond

During the early Middle Ages the timing and the character of the Easter Vigil began to change in western Europe. As the number of adult converts to the Christian religion decreased and the number of infant baptisms increased, the importance of the vigil service as an occasion for baptism diminished. In addition, by the eighth century many churches offered the Easter Vigil on the afternoon rather than the evening of Holy Saturday. In the twelfth century the service had shifted to midday. In 1570, Roman Catholic authorities advanced the hour of the vigil service yet again to the early morning of Holy Saturday. This change in timing undermined the powerful symbolic use of fire and light so prevalent in early Christian vigil services. In addition, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the flowering of the Reformation, a religious reform movement that gave birth to Protestant Christianity. Many of the new Protestant denominations abandoned the Easter Vigil, along with many other rituals and festivals observed by Roman Catholics. Finally, in the seventh century the Roman Catholic Church introduced the Easter Sunday service. Over the centuries this service grew in popularity as attendance at the Easter Vigil declined. By the early part of the twentieth century the Easter Vigil was one of the least well attended services of Holy Week.

In the second half of the twentieth century Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants, began to restore the Easter Vigil service to its former glory. In 1955, after a trial period of several years, Roman Catholic authorities ordered the Easter Vigil service to be moved back to Holy Saturday evening. This act revived the symbolic power of the fires and lights used in the vigil service. This same era witnessed a liturgical renewal movement among Western Christians which has influenced both Roman Catholic and Protestant attitudes towards the Easter Vigil service and its associated customs and ceremonies.

Contemporary Services among Western Christians

Contemporary Easter Vigil services among Western Christians feature many elements that have characterized the observance from ancient times. These include the kindling of new flame, the lighting of many candles, including the paschal candle, the baptism of new members and the congregation's renewal of their baptismal vows, lengthy Bible readings, and the celebration of the Eucharist.

The vigil service also marks the end of the many prohibitions that characterize Lent. Those who have fasted break their fasts, congregations that have refrained from using the word alleluia throughout Lent once more proclaim it, bells silenced on Maundy Thursday ring out again, and veiled images are revealed.

Orthodox Easter Vigil and Resurrection Services

Orthodox and other Eastern Christians also attend services on the evening of Holy Saturday. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodoxy developed in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. The Orthodox and Western Christian traditions split apart from one another around 1,000 years ago. Therefore, Orthodox Christians observe slightly different customs and ceremonies than do Western Christians (see also Easter, Date of).

Orthodox churches offer services on both the morning and the evening of Holy Saturday. The morning service addresses Jesus' Descent into Hell to liberate the dead and his observance of the Jewish Sabbath by resting in the grave (for more on Sabbath, see Sunday). The service begins in a somber tone but brightens as it turns to consider the Resurrection. In Greek Orthodox churches the priest scatters flower petals or bay leaves around the church while chanting, "Arise, O God, to the world." The leaves and petals represent Christ's triumph over death. Although celebrated on the morning of Holy Saturday, this observance technically serves as the vespers, or evening, service for Easter Sunday and thus as the Easter Vigil. Indeed, it resembles the Easter Vigil service observed by many Western Christians in its overall structure. A second service, known as the Resurrection service, is offered late at night on Holy Saturday. This service, too, belongs to Easter Sunday (for more on this service and related customs, see Easter Sunday).

At the end of this long service, the faithful enjoy a late meal which marks the end of the Lenten fast. This late-night Easter feast typically includes several items forbidden during Lent, such as cheese, meat soup, eggs, and wine. Many feel that the first food to pass their lips at this time should be a traditional Orthodox red Easter egg. The red color represents the blood of Christ, the egg itself new life, and the shell Jesus' tomb. The cracking of this egg represents Christ's emerging from the tomb.

Further Reading

Baldovin, John F. "Easter." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 4. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Bradshaw, Paul F. "Easter in Christian Tradition." In Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Easter and Passover: Origin and History to Modern Times. Two Liturgical Traditions series, volume 5. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Bradshaw, Paul F. "The Origins of Easter." In Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Easter and Passover: Origin and History to Modern Times. Two Liturgical Traditions series, volume 5. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Hopko, Thomas. The Orthodox Faith. Volume Two, Worship. Syosset, NY: The Orthodox Church in America, 1972. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. O'Shea, W. J. "Easter Vigil." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 5. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986. "Vigil." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997.
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