Note: I started writing this post on Good Friday of last year and since then, I have not completed it. I finally sat down and completed this post, on my second year as the Master of Ceremonies for the Paschal Triduum Liturgies.
Tonight, Catholics will start the Easter Season with a celebration with a humble name: The Easter Vigil. This celebration can be said as the peak of the Liturgical Year as it is the celebration of Jesus’ rising from the dead. The Roman Missal states that this “is the greatest and most noble of all solemnities” (EV 2). The celebration of the Easter Vigil is the most solemn of Liturgies of the Liturgical year and concludes the “series” of the Paschal Triduum rituals. Have you noticed that after the reposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursday night, there was no final blessing? Tonight, at the end of the Easter Vigil, there will the final blessing with the two Alleluias.
The celebration of the Easter Vigil begins in a dark church. All the lights are turned off. The only source of light is the fire. This part is known as the Lucernarium. The priest will begin as usual with the Sign of the Cross. He will greet the people in words stated in the Roman Missal, emphasizing the our listening to the word of God and the celebration the Paschal mysteries that night as we await for Christ’s Resurrection. The priest will then bless the fire. The fire is a symbol of Christ Himself as He has said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (Jn 8:12) It may also be considered as the symbol of God guiding us just as He has done so with the Israelites during their escape from Egypt (cf. Ex 13:21). After, the fire that was just blessed is used to light the Paschal Candle. Once the Paschal Candle has been lit, the priest may trace the cross, the sign of our salvation, the Alpha and Omega and the four numerals of the year. When the priest traces the symbols he will say, “Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages. To him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen.” (EV 11) The priest will also insert five grains of incense into five points of the cross saying, “By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ the Lord guard us and protect us. Amen”. (EV 12) As the prayer suggests, the five grains of incense represents the five wounds of Christ. Often, these grains are five pins of wax with incense embedded into them.
The next part of the Lucernarium is the procession, similar to that of the Veneration of the Cross in yesterday’s Liturgy. This procession focuses on the Light of Christ. A priest or deacon holds the newly lit Paschal Candle and pauses three times through the nave of the Church, singing, “The Light of Christ”, and the people respond, “Thanks be to God”. By the third “The Light of Christ”, everyone has on their candle, the flame of the Light of Christ.
The celebrant then reverences the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet and in a special way, the Paschal Candle with burning incense as he does during the Gospel. A priest, deacon or minister proclaims the Exsultet. The Exsultet, an ancient Easter Proclamation is sung with solemnity beside the Paschal Candle. It explains the history of salvation and at the same time explains the significance of the Light of Christ, “the pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin”. It praises the Light of Christ, comparing it as the “Morning Star who never sets”.
The Exsultet concludes the Lucernarium and the second part of the Liturgy begins, the Liturgy of the Word begins. There seven Old Testament readings, one Epistle and one Gospel at this Liturgy. However, many communities, including that at the Vatican only proclaims three readings. However, the Roman Missal states that, “Never, moreover should the reading of chapter 14 of Exodus with its canticle be omitted.” Exodus 14 records the events of Passover, the Crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14:15-15:1) and its events foreshadow the salvation of God’s people from the hands of sin. After each reading is its Psalm/Canticle. In this Liturgy, after the Psalm/Canticle is a prayer said by the celebrant summarizing the meaning of the reading and asking for the necessary graces (especially for the Catechumens). After the last Old Testament reading, its Psalm/Canticle and prayer, the celebrant/cantor intones the Gloria, a prayer the has been silent throughout most of the Lenten Season and sung last on Holy Thursday with solemnity. In today’s Liturgy, the Gloria is sung in great solemnity in the same manner as Holy Thursday with bells. All the candles in the Church are lit at this point and flowers and other decorations may be put into the church at this time.
The Mass formally begins with the Collect. The Roman Missal clarifies that it is said, “in the usual way”. Everyone responds “Amen” and is seated to listen to the Epistle.
After the Epistle is the intoning of the “Alleluia” which is followed by Psalm 118(117), the Confitemini Domino. This may be done by a priest, deacon or lay minister. The “Alleluia” is done in a call and response form. The cantor intones it and the congregation responds, each time, a step higher in tone.
The Gospel is then followed (the solemn Alleluia takes place of the Gospel Acclamation). Candles are not carried with the Gospel because the Light of Christ from the Paschal Candle takes the focal point of the whole Liturgy. The Book of the Gospels may be reverenced with incensed as usual.
The homily follows. Once the homily has concluded, the third part of the Liturgy begins which is the Baptismal Liturgy (the Rites of Initiation for the Catechumens). The celebrant calls everyone to pray for the Catechumens who are to be baptized. The Litany of Saints begins the Rites of Initation. Everyone stands during the Litany instead of kneeling as kneeling is an action of penitence. Easter is a season of joy, of being redeemed and therefore the congregation stands. The Blessing of the Baptismal then follows. This beautiful prayer mentions the significance of water throughout the bible: The Spirit “in the first moments of the world’s creation hovered over the waters”; the water of the flood “foreshadowed regeneration”; the crossing of the Red Sea “prefigured the people of the baptized”; Jesus was baptized in the waters of Jordan, blood and water flowed from His side. The main message, the waters of baptism brings life. The Paschal candle is immersed into the blessed water as the people acclaim, “Springs of water, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all for ever.”
The actual rite of Baptism takes place after Blessing of the Water. It begins with the Renewal of Baptismal Promises for the Catechumens (if they are to be baptized). The Catechumens are then baptized one by one with the same formula in every baptism, “N…, I baptize you, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The newly baptized are then vested with the white baptismal garment and then given the Light of Christ. The Rite of Confirmation follows as the priest anoints each Catechumen with the Sacred Chrism saying, “N…, be sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit… Peace be with you…“
Once the Rites of Initiation has been completed, the congregation are invited to stand to renew their Baptismal Promises. To conclude the third part of the Liturgy, “Vidi Aquam (I saw Water)” is sung as the priest(s)/deacon(s) sprinkle Holy Water on the congregation.
The Prayer of the faithful is then offered.
The final part of the Liturgy then takes place which is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Mass continues as usual at this point with the Offertory, Prayer over the Offerings, the Preface and the Eucharistic Prayer (often Eucharistic Prayer I, though this is not mandatory).
The blessing is finally given to the faithful after all the Paschal Triduum rituals. This solemn blessing concludes with the two “Alleluia”s at the end.