Easter Vigil 2023 Guide: Table of Contents
- Biblical Roots
- Pope Pius XII and Maxima Redemptionis
- Start of Vigil: Service of Light
- The Exsultet
- Easter Vigil Readings: Liturgy of the Word
- Liturgy of Baptism
- Liturgy of Eucharist
- Frequently Asked Questions
Anyone who has attended this beautiful, unique Holy Week liturgy would be hard-pressed to disagree.
The Easter Vigil is the longest service of the year, for good reason. It’s filled with powerful scripture and beautiful liturgical traditions.
It’s also when the Church grows, since the Easter Vigil is the night when catechumens can receive the Catholic sacrament of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion on the same night.
The Easter Vigil is a one-of-a-kind Mass, more different than a regular Sunday liturgy than any other Mass of the year.
Hallow breaks down the modern Easter Vigil, starting with its roots, which are younger than you might realize.
Biblical Roots of The Easter Vigil
As with the entirety of Holy Week, we understand the Easter Vigil first from the Bible, which tells us of Jesus’s final days, death and resurrection.
But the Easter Vigil celebrates the story of salvation unfolding throughout history, and the liturgy is inspired by both the Old and New Testaments.
“By most ancient tradition, this is the night of keeping vigil for the Lord (Ex 12:42), in which, following the Gospel admonition (Lk 12:35-37), the faithful, carrying lighted lamps in their hands, should be like those looking for the Lord when he returns, so that at his coming he may find them awake and have them sit at his table.” Roman Missal
Pope Pius XII and Maxima Redemptionis
However, the Easter Vigil that St. Augustine knew and experienced is likely much different than the Holy Saturday service that occurs worldwide in the 21st century.
During the middle ages, Holy Week liturgies took place at different times than we’re accustomed to. They often began in the mornings, when the meaning of a nighttime vigil was compromised, and at a time when fewer people could attend these services.
In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII changed the observance of Holy Week, to encourage greater lay participation.
His 1955 papal document Maxima Redemptionis solidified changes to Holy Week that are more familiar today.
One of the most noteworthy elements of the Easter Vigil occurs outside the church.
The Vigil Begins: Easter Vigil Worship Place + Service of Light
On Good Friday, the altar is bare; the church sparsely decorated. Crosses and statues are covered. The next day, on Holy Saturday, there is no morning Mass before the Easter Vigil. The church remains empty, quiet and dark before the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
Throughout the day, we await Christ’s imminent Resurrection, resting with Him in the darkness. As Pope Francis recently said,
“There are moments when life seems to be a sealed tomb: all is dark, and around us we see only sorrow and despair … Jesus tells us that in these moments we are not alone. Precisely in these moments He comes closer than ever to restore life to us.”
The Easter Vigil that night marks the first sign of Christ’s light and resurrection.
After churchgoers have filed into the church, the Easter Vigil service begins at sunset with an invitation from the priest to walk from the dark church outside to begin the Service of Light.
A fire burns, dispelling the night’s darkness, as the priest takes the Paschal Candle, carves a cross and other symbols into it, and lights the candle. With incense burning, the priest passes light from the candle to smaller candles held by everyone in attendance.
As everyone moves inside, the light from Christ illuminates the dark worship space. It serves as a powerful symbol, as Christ is the Light of the World. As Christ’s light enters the church, it can also enter our hearts.
As Pope Benedict XVI said, “Beginning with the resurrection, God’s light spreads throughout the world and throughout history..This Light alone – Jesus Christ – is the true light, something more than the physical phenomenon of light..”
It’s a symbol that perhaps those in the Middle Ages were better equipped to appreciate than we do, given that light and electricity are typically abundant for us.
When the procession ends, and the candle settles on its resting place, the Exsultet, also known as Easter Proclamation, begins. It’s a beautiful, rich hymn that celebrates the truly holy night with words such as those below:
The Exsultet gives a taste of the unique Scripture and song that take place as the Vigil unfolds.
The Easter Vigil Readings and Psalms
In the readings at the Easter Vigil, we trace the story of the world from God’s creation through Jesus’s Resurrection.
A Psalm follows each reading. After the psalm, the congregation rises as the priest says, “Let us pray…” and offers a specific prayer related to the reading and psalm. After “Amen,” everyone sits, and the next reading begins.
- 1. Genesis 1:2-2 (The Story of Creation)
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 104: Lord send out Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
- 2. Genesis 22:1-18 (God puts Abraham to the Test)
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 16: You are my inheritance, O Lord.
- 3. Exodus 14:15-15:1 (Moses’s Triumph Over the Egyptians)
- Responsorial Psalm: Exodus 15: Let us sing to the Lord; He has covered himself in glory.
- 4. Isaiah 54:5-14 (Tne New Zion)
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 30: I will praise You, Lord, for You have rescued me.
- 5. Isaiah 55:1-11 (An Invitation to Grace)
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 12: You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
- 6. Baruch 3:9-15, 32C4:4 (In Praise of Wisdom)
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 19: Lord, You have the words of everlasting life
- 7. Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28 (The Renewal of Israel)
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 42: Like a deer that longs for running streams, my soul longs for You, my God.
- (“Gloria in excelsis” is sung)
- 8. Epistle: Romans 6:3-11 (If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.)
- (Alleluia led by the priest)
- 9. Gospel: Mark 16:1-7 (The Resurrection of Jesus)
After the seventh and final Old Testament reading, the priest leads “Gloria in excelsis,” often accompanied by bell ringing. The “Gloria” is not sung during Lent but returns on Holy Thursday and again at the Easter Vigil.
Before the ninth and final reading, the Gospel, the priest intones “Alleluia” three times, getting louder each time, the first time Alleluia is sung during Lent.
Pastors can shorten the number of readings, with some limitations, based on the needs of their particular parish.
The Liturgy of the Word concludes with a homily, which is often brief, given the length of the readings.
One of the most special aspects of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of Baptism, which follows the Liturgy of the Word.
Adult catechumens who have been preparing to be welcomed into the Church receive the sacrament of baptism at this time. This process is known as “RCIA”–the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
Even if the parish has no catechumens, the baptismal font still receives a blessing and everyone gathered renews their baptismal vows.
As those being baptized process to the baptismal font, accompanied by their sponsors or godparents, the cantor leads the Litany of the Saints, invoking the intercession of various “holy men and women” throughout time.
Those who are newly baptized then receive a white robe–a symbol of being cleansed from sin, according to the USCCB, and a white candle, lit from the Paschal candle. They then receive the sacrament of Confirmation and are anointed with oil of the Sacred Chrism (which is presented during Holy Thursday.)
Liturgy of the Eucharist
At this point, the Easter Vigil proceeds mostly like a normal Sunday liturgy.
If there are newly baptized adults, they may carry the gifts forward during the offertory. The priest may also offer a special message to them and their sponsors, as they prepare to receive Holy Communion for the first time.
After Communion, the priest offers a final blessing and a dismissal that includes a final “Alleluia” before the Mass ends.
A celebratory hymn like “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” closes the joy-filled worship. Although the liturgy ends late into the night, churches often hold gatherings with food and drink to celebrate.
It’s not a short liturgy, but it’s absolutely worth your time. With powerful rituals, words, songs and initiation, the Easter Vigil is perhaps the most vibrant celebration of our faith.
Frequently Asked Questions about The Easter Vigil
This depends on a number of factors, such as whether certain portions of the Mass are spoken or sung, how many readings are used and if there are any baptisms. It usually runs 2.5 to 3 hours.
The Easter Vigil is not a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation.
Yes, attending the Easter Vigil fulfills one’s obligation to attend Mass on (Easter) Sunday.
There’s no specific dress code for the Easter Vigil, and no outfit recommendation could possibly accommodate all churches in all cultures. Since it’s a long liturgy, make sure your outfit is comfortable.
There’s darkness, fire, water (Baptism), oil (Confirmation) and more. It’s a liturgy filled with powerful symbolism.
The exact time varies, but the Easter Vigil always begins after dusk.
The Service of Light, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of Baptism, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.