On this Easter Sunday I would like to take some time to write about the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, the culmination of entire liturgical year.
The Vigil begins outside after nightfall with the blessing of the fire and the preparation of the paschal candle, followed by the entrance into the church; there follows the Easter Proclamation (the “Exultet”) and the service of readings; next is the baptismal liturgy; finally there is the liturgy of the Eucharist.
Fire and water, light and cleansing, will be the two main symbols that characterize the liturgy of the Vigil.
So the first part of the Vigil is the blessing of the fire and the preparation of the candle. The fire represents the fire of divine glory, the eternal glory of the Most Holy Trinity. When we bless the fire, we ask that “we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires, that with minds made pure we may attain festivities of unending splendor.” The divine fire kindles our hearts, purifies our minds, and leads us to eternal life.
The candle represents the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The candle is first marked by the sign of the Cross and the number of the current year in honor of Christ, Alpha and Omega, to whom all of time belongs. Then five symbolic grains of incense, encased in wax, are embedded in the Cross with the prayer, “By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ the Lord guard us and protect us. Amen.” Then the candle is lit from the fire, representing both the Son of God becoming man, and Jesus Christ rising from the dead, and we ask that “the light of Christ rising in glory” may “dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”
Then, like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites across the Red Sea, the Paschal Candle leads the faithful into the church and from that candle all other candles are lit.
Once everyone is in the Church there follows the Easter Proclamation: “Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!” The praises that follow connect Christ’s death and resurrection with the deliverance of Israel from their slavery in Egypt: in place of the blood of the Passover Lamb, there is the Blood of Christ, the one true Lamb; this pillar of fire banishes the darkness of sin; in place of the slavery of Egypt, the prison-bars of death are broken. “O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!”
There follows a series of readings from the Old Testament. The full service would include seven readings, but we customarily read only four of them. Those readings trace the history of salvation from the creation of the world, to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (not read), to the crossing of the Red Sea, and then move to prophecies of salvation in the prophets, prophecies that speak of the new Jerusalem, the water of salvation, the wisdom of God, and the promise of a new heart and new spirit from God.
After the prolonged vigil of readings the congregation breaks out in joy, singing the “Glory to God” that had been silenced for the duration of Lent. As the “Glory to God” is sung the candles on the altar are lit once again.
Then we hear St. Paul speaking to us about how through baptism we have shared Christ’s death so as to live in the newness of life, we must now think of ourselves “as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” Finally, for the first time since before Ash Wednesday we sing “Alleluia” and Gospel of the Resurrection, the women at the empty tomb, is proclaimed.
The third part of the Easter Vigil is the baptismal liturgy. Through his death Jesus Christ destroyed our death and won for us the forgiveness of sins; through his resurrection Jesus has given us new life. That new life comes to us concretely through the sacrament of baptism. That is why this moment, the celebration of Easter, is the most fitting time for baptism.
First the saints are invoked and then the baptismal font is blessed. The solemn blessing of the font makes reference to anticipations of baptism in the history of salvation, from the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters at the beginning of creation, to the great flood, to the crossing of the Red Sea; it makes reference to Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan and his command to baptize; finally the font is blessed when the Paschal Candle itself is lowered into the water.
Besides baptism of adults and children old enough to answer for themselves, Easter is a time for the whole congregation to renew their baptismal promises in solemn fashion. It is a time to remember who we are as Catholic Christians and commit ourselves anew to living a life of faith.
All of this prepares once again for the liturgy of the Eucharist, the holy sacrifice of the Mass and holy communion, which now appear clearly as the new Passover sacrifice and banquet.
So the last word appropriately should be from the communion antiphon: “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed; therefore let us keep the feast with the unleavened bread of purity and truth, alleluia.”
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