Christians are sometimes called ‘the Easter People’. Easter is the central event of the Christian year and of our lives as Christians. It celebrates the rising of Jesus Christ from the dead. On this reality rests the faith of the Christian. The ceremonies of the Easter Vigil express the meaning of Easter, and they usher in the seven-week Easter season, a time of spiritual renewal of the Church and its members. The liturgical scholar, J.D. Crichton, says that at this time, “The Church is celebrating the renewal of its existence”.
The Easter Vigil celebration takes place on Holy Saturday evening. It is rich in the symbolism of fire and light, water and oil, bread and wine, and their meaning appears as the celebration unfolds. The Vigil has four parts: the Service of Light, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of Baptism, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Service of Light:
This begins with the lighting of the new fire outside of or at the entrance to the church. The Paschal (or Easter) Candle is lit from this fire. The priest traces a cross on the Candle and inscribes at the top and the bottom of the cross the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega, signifying Christ - he is the ‘beginning’ and the ‘end’. The priest then inserts five grains of incense into the Candle, symbolizing the five wounds of Christ on the cross, and traces on the Candle the number of the current year, 2010 - this year of our salvation.
Now begins a procession into the completely darkened church with the priest carrying aloft the lighted Paschal Candle – the symbol of Christ, our light, and the sole light in the darkness. This procession also commemorates the Exodus (or journey) of the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt, through the darkness, and into the light of God’s deliverance to freedom and the Promised Land. At each of three stops in the procession the priest pauses with the lighted Candle and chants, ‘The Light of Christ’, meaning the triumph of Christ’s light over the darkness of sin and death. The people in the church respond, ‘Thanks be to God’, and light their candles from the Paschal Candle. The church is now flooded with light. The lighted candles remind us that we are now men and women of the light: we are light-bearers of Christ, called to bring the light of faith and hope to the world.
Exsultet, the Easter Song:
A priest or deacon now sings the Exsultet, the Easter song - a song of joy celebrating the rising of Jesus from the dead, and telling the story of God’s saving presence and activity among his People. The story of God’s saving work is not just an historical account of past events: it describes God’s actual saving action happening here and now for the benefit of today’s generation of people. This is indicated in the singer’s words of the Exsultet “This is the night when Christians everywhere … are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.”
Liturgy of the Word:
People and ministers now listen to several readings from the Old Testament and the New Testament. These tell the story of what God has done for his People over the centuries, beginning with the story of the creation of the world (in the Book of Genesis), and on to God’s deliverance of the Israelites in the Exodus from Egypt. Then come passages from the prophets, and finally the narrative of the coming of Jesus and his resurrection. After each reading the people respond to it with a prayer, usually an excerpt from the psalms.
Liturgy of Baptism:
This part of the Vigil has sometimes been called the ‘Feast of Water’ because it focuses on the life-giving power of water and its symbolic application to the life and growth of the spirit – the new life that comes with baptism, and the renewal of life in those already
The celebrant blesses the water of the baptismal font, the symbolism of water reminding us of those many events in the history of God’s people when the gift of water was a saving force. The Paschal Candle, representing the Risen Christ, is plunged into the waters of the baptismal font. The litanies of the saints are sung – we call on the saints to pray for us, and especially for any persons present who are to be baptised. (If anyone is to be baptised, the baptism takes place now).Then the priest invites all present to renew their baptismal promises, giving all a fresh awareness of the promises made on their behalf (if they were baptised as infants) and reminding them that they have now risen with Christ to new life.
The Easter Mass:
All these parts of the liturgy are brought together in the Easter Mass, where the theme is joy in the resurrection of the Lord and the beginning of a new phase of life for each one of us. Easter joy is expressed especially in the singing of the ‘Alleluia’, at the beginning of the Gospel and in the farewell blessing at the end of Mass. The ‘Alleluia’ verses are sung throughout the Easter season.
Thus we begin the Easter experience. It will take us through the next seven weeks. Then we will celebrate the Ascension and after that the Feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate God’s gift to us of the Holy Spirit.
Paul J. Duffy SJ