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According to the ancient tradition of the Church, this night is spent in watching and prayer in honor of the Lord. We are reminded to have our lamps burning ready, to be like the servants awaiting their master’s return, so that when he arrives and finds us wide awake, he will seat us at the table of his body and blood. 

St. Augustine called the Easter vigil the mother of all vigils because all the other vigils we celebrate in the course of the year (Eucharistic vigils, vigils for the dead, etc.) draw their meaning from it and in some way prolong its effect. St. Augustine writes: “While we keep vigil on the night during which we recall to mind the burial of our Lord, we want our vigil to coincide with the time when he slept for us. Thus in the very night when he slept we keep vigil. During the time of his sleep we solemnize a vigil, so that when finally we have arisen for the eternal vigils, he may keep vigil for us.”

The Easter vigil is arranged in four parts: the service of light, the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of baptism and renewal of baptismal vows, and the liturgy of the Eucharist. The central parts of the entire celebration are the baptismal and Eucharistic liturgy. While the season of Lent centered on the word of God for conversion, penance, and preparation for baptism, Easter centers on the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.

The Service of Light

Light is an integral and symbolic part of Easter vigil. First, we recall the creation of light at the dawn of time, when God said: “Let there be light.” By his resurrection Christ became the light of the world. Second, we use light to signify that those who have been baptized have become light in the Lord. St. Justin Martyr called baptism “Photismos” or illumination. And it is said of Emperor Constantine that he lit torches all over the city of Constantinople on Easter vigil to honor those who were baptized. 

The blessing of fire on Easter vigil seems to have originated sometime in the eighth century. The fire which had been kept burning since Good Friday (the ancient did not use matches and had to nurse fire constantly) was brought out to light the lamps and candles to be used on Easter vigil. Soon the fire became a symbol of the light at the time of creation and of the light of the risen Christ. 

The blessing of fire, like the blessing of water, is meant to show that this material element is now an instrument of grace, a reminder of God’s presence and intervention in our earthly world.

In antiquity, the lighting of lamps and candles was part of the office of the “lucernarium” which was a type of vigil prayer before and important feast. The lighting of the paschal candle is a solemn form and a remnant of the office of the “lucernatium.”

The celebration traces the sign of the cross, the Greek letters alpha and omega, and the current year, saying: “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega, all time belongs to him and all ages.” These words are a profession of the Church’s faith that by his resurrection Christ has gained absolute dominion over all ages; he is the key to the Christian understanding of the everything in the universe. The current year is written on the paschal candle to signify that this year is also the year of the Lord, that is, it belongs to him. 

The insertion fo the give grains of incense in the paschal candle is now optional. The practice came from an erroneous interpretation of the Latin “incensum” which can mean either lighted candle or ornamented with incense. The grains of incense are now interpreted as the symbol of the five wounds of Christ; “By his holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us.”

At the procession the deacon or priest proclaims “Christ our Light” three times, as he spreads light around him from the paschal candle. The paschal candle now represents Christ who is our light. The procession led by the lighted paschal candle reminds us of the Exodus of the chosen people. The column of fire guided them on their way toward the Promised Land. We too are guided by Christ on our Exodus from the slavery of sin to the freedom of God’s people. 

The “Exultet” or Easter proclamation is a fourth-century hymn attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan. It is a solemn proclamation of Christ’s resurrection that took place on this night. This is why the “Exultet” focuses its attention on the night. This night was in fact the night of the Exodus, the night of baptism, the night of the resurrection. In other words, the Easter night is the compendium of the chief events that God has accomplished in us. 

With poetic indulgence the “Exultet” exclaims ins words that show the immensity of God’s love when he gave away his Son as well as the immeasurable grace, thanks to Adam’s sin, of having Christ as our Redeemer: “Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave you gave away (Latin: tradisti, meaning betrayed) your Son. O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

The Liturgy of the Word

The present-day liturgy of the word offers nine readings including the epistle and the gospel. Before the sixth century the number of readings in Rome was six. After this the number became 12 or in the Lateran Basilica, 24, because the 12 readings were in Latin and Greek for the benefit of the Greek-speaking faithful in Rome. 

The readings, which precede baptism, are meant to give to the catechumens a final instruction on the history of salvation. For the faithful these readings sum up the major works of God in the history of salvation, namely: creation, sacrifice of Abraham, passage through the Red Sea, the new Jerusalem, a salvation offered to all, fountain of wisdom, a new heart and a new spirit. Finally, the epistle explains the meaning of Christian baptism, while the Gospel proclaims that Christ is truly risen. 

Looking closely at the Old Testament readings, we are able to gather the chief topics: creation, Exodus, church, universality of salvation, baptism as wisdom, and baptism as new life. Or in short, creation and salvation. 

But the readings are not meant to be taken merely as a review of the things God accomplished in the history of salvation. The prayer that follows every reading affirms that what God did in the past he still does today, that what he promised to Abraham and through the prophets he now fulfills in the sacrament of baptism. The difference is that the fulfillment is more wondrous that the promise itself. 

After the last reading from the Old Testament the Gloria is sung and the church bells are rung festively. After the epistle the Alleluia is intoned solemnly. From then on, until Lent, the Gloria and Alleluia will constantly remind us of this night of nights, of this mother of all vigils. 

The Liturgy of Baptism and Eucharist

Baptism and Eucharist are the two sacraments that culminate our Lenten, Holy Week, and Easter Triduum observance. This is not the place to discuss these two sacraments, nor is it possible to do it on account of their vastness. There is, however, one aspect that needs to be stressed here, even if only in a partial way, namely: the renewal of baptismal vows. 

A complete celebration of Easter vigil includes the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and communion, or in short, the sacraments of Christian initiation. The entire Lenten season and the plan of the Easter vigil, especially the readings, are all directed to the celebration of baptism. Several attempts in the past have asked that there be baptism, even of children, on Easter vigil, precisely in order to have an integral celebration. 

In the absence of baptism, therefore, something is missing in the wholeness of the Easter vigil celebration. But this is filled in by the renewal of baptismal vows by the assembly. In a sense, for the Christian community this is the culminating point of the entire Lenten observance. That is why the renewal of baptismal vows should be given greater care, planning, and catechesis. For us who are already baptized, the renewal of baptismal vows means that we commit ourselves, in the words of St. Ambrose, “to cling to the cross of Jesus Christ, to cling to his nails and not to allow the devil to lure us down from the cross.”