Photo by Getty Images/Fred de Noyelle
The Catholic faith is rich with tradition and history, all of which culminates in a glorious Mass known as the Easter Vigil.
The most significant of all liturgical celebrations, the Easter Vigil is rich in symbolism and meaning, announcing the resurrection of Jesus and our promise of eternal life. The only Mass of the day, it celebrates the three sacraments of initiation with those preparing for full reception into the Catholic Church. The vigil begins after dusk on Holy Saturday, as sunset marks the beginning of a new liturgical day.
The light of Christ
Darkness envelops the church. The priest blesses a small bonfire just outside, lights the Paschal candle with this holy fire, and processes down the aisle, pausing three times to announce, “The light of Christ.” And we respond: “Thanks be to God!”
Fire spreads through the congregation. The scent of incense permeates the air as hundreds of small candles illuminate the darkness, each parishioner holding the light of the Paschal candle in their hands.
The Paschal candle is placed prominently in the sanctuary. The priest’s voice raises with the Exsultet, or Easter Proclamation, before the history of redemption is told.
Proclaiming the word of God
Seven readings from the Old Testament may be heard, telling the story of our salvation between responsorial psalms in praise of God’s mighty works.
“Glory to God in the highest…”
The whole church sings of God’s great glory as the altar candles are lit.
A reading from St. Paul to the Romans is read. Then, for the first time since before Lent, the Alleluia is proclaimed. The priest blesses the deacon with incense, and the altar and Book of Gospels are incensed.
The Gospel is announced, declaring Christ’s victory over sin and death for all of mankind, before the homily is given.
The sacraments of initiation
Not only do we celebrate our risen Lord this night, but we also welcome newcomers to the faith and the Church.
Catechumens are called forward to the baptismal font as the Litany of Saints is sung. The priest blesses the baptismal water, recalling the significance of water throughout salvation history, and asks the candidates to profess their faith.
With their faith declared, catechumens are then baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – Amen! Each of the newly baptized is clothed with a white baptismal garment and each finally receives his or her own candle, showing that they, too, have received the light of Christ.
The whole congregation renews their baptismal promises. Now, as one body of Christ, the entire church professes the faith alongside the newly baptized and candidates.
With the sponsor’s right hand on the shoulder, the candidate is presented to receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by the minister of the sacrament. A sign of the cross is anointed on the candidate’s forehead, marking the person as God’s own.
The remainder of Easter Vigil is familiar, proceeding as normal with the addition of incensing the altar to remind us of the holiness of the altar, the gifts of the people, the crucifix and the people of God.
The priest concludes the eucharistic liturgy with a solemn blessing over the people. Now, all the faithful go forth to spread the light of Christ.
Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia!