Holy Week: The Easter Vigil

by Sal on April 11, 2009

in Religion

This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.

The final part of the great Triduum liturgy, the culmination of Holy Week, and the most solemn Mass of the Church Year is the great Easter Vigil.  One of the most ancient rites of the Church, the Easter Vigil transitions from the somber solemnity of Holy Thursday and Good Friday into the joy of the Resurrection, as we celebrate “this most holy night, when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life.”  The Cross is incomplete without the Resurrection, and Christ’s triumph over sin and death is the hope of all Christians and the hope for the world.

The vigil begins in a separate place (often at the doors of the church) for the blessing of the Easter fire, which will be used to light the Paschal Candle.  The church is in darkness as the Deacon (or Priest) chants “Christ our Light!” and all respond “Thanks be to God.”  The candle is processed towards the altar, with stops along the way to repeat the chant, and candles held by the congregation are lit from the light of the Easter Candle.  Upon arriving at the altar, the candle is incensed and the Exultet (Easter Proclamation) is sung.  This is one of my favorite prayers of the Church year, and it is one of the Church’s most ancient.  The prayer recalls the wonders of the mystery of a Father who gives His Son as a gift for us:

Father, how wonderful your care for us!  How boundless your merciful love!  To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son.

The prayer is filled with beautiful imagery, and its setting of being sung in darkness with the Easter Candle, signifying Christ as the Light of the World, and the candles of the faithful being the only lights, is a powerful and moving introduction to this great vigil.

Following the Exultet, and extended Liturgy of the Word is held.  There are a total of seven Old Testament Readings prescribed for the Easter Vigil (although most parishes do three or four).  The readings recount the story of God’s covenant with the Hebrew people, and His saving works throughout salvation history.  From the creation of the world (“God looked at everything He had made, and found it very good”) to the God’s covenant with Abraham (“I swear by myself, says the Lord, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore”) to the great saving action of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt (“I will sing to the Lord, for He is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea”).  The remaining four readings are from the prophetic books, which foretell God’s promise to save the world through Christ and His Word (“Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, my love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken” and “Such is our God; no other is to be compared to Him”), and link Christ’s saving work to the waters of Baptism, the Sacrament of Salvation (“All you who are thirsty, come to the  water!” and “  I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you of your impurities.”)

Following the Old Testament Readings, the Glory to God is sung, and the church bells are rung for the first time since the Glory to God on Holy Thursday.  All of the lights in the church are turned on, and candles are lit, in a dramatic moment that makes the power and joy of the Resurrection come alive.  The Glory to God is followed by a reading from a New Testament Epistle describing our own participation in the Resurrection  (“For if we have grown into union with Him through a death like His, we shall also be united with Him in the Resurrection”), and the Alleluia, sung for the first time since before Lent began, with the verses of Psalm 118, known as the Easter Psalm (“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever” and “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  By the Lord has this been done, it is wonderful in our eyes!”)  The Gospel retelling the Resurrection story is then read, followed by the Homily.

After the Homily, the Vigil transitions into the Celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation.  Because of the link between the Sacraments and the Resurrection, the Church has chosen for centuries to Baptize and Confirm new adult members of the Church at the Easter Vigil.  The rite begins with the Litany of Saints, calling on all the saints that have gone before us to pray for those about to be Baptized in Christ and welcomed into His church.  A lengthy blessing of the baptismal water, calling to mind the cleansing power of water as told throughout scripture, is said or sung.  The catechumens make their Baptismal Promises, and are Baptized into new life.  Following the Baptisms, the whole congregation renews their Baptismal promises, and is sprinkled with Holy Water while holding lighted candles.  New converts are then received into the Church, and the Baptized and newly received (if applicable) receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.

The Mass continues with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, as in a normal Mass, but the tone has been set to one of joy, as the Church celebrates Christ’s Resurrection, and the joy of welcoming the newly Baptized into the Light of Christ.  The Triduum concludes with the Deacon’s dismissal “Go in Peace, Alleluia, Alleluia” to which the people respond “Thanks Be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia”.  The Easter Vigil can be quite lengthy.  In my parish, it clocks in around two and a half hours.  Yet, it does not seem overly long, as the symbolism, the ritual, and the music provide a spirit of prayerful joy.  The Great Liturgy of the Triduum has ended.  The Church rejoices in the Lord’s Resurrection and the Saving gift that He has given to all creation; that of the suffering and death of His only Son for our sins, and His triumphant Resurrection from the dead, the hope and joy of all believers.  The joy of the Triduum spills over into Easter Sunday, the epilogue of the great celebration of Holy Week.  We end the Great Triduum as we began it:  “Let us ever glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free.”

Christ is Risen, Alleluia!
Christ is truly Risen, Alleluia!

{ 3 trackbacks }

Holy Week: Good Friday | Axis of Right
April 11, 2009 at 9:02 am
Holy Week: Easter Sunday | Axis of Right
April 12, 2009 at 11:51 am
Holy Week: An Introduction | Axis of Right
April 12, 2009 at 11:52 am

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