A history of the easter vigil
During this session, we will look briefly at the Easter Vigil in the early Church; we
will observe the gradual departure from the norm through celebrating the Great Vigil at an
increasingly earlier hour; we will look at Rome’s revival of the earlier authentic liturgical
practices with its restoration of the Easter Triduum in 1955. We will then examine the Easter
Vigil as celebrated in the Anglican Communion. We will see that the Four Elements in both
celebrations (Anglican and Catholic) are identical.
Easter Saturday in the Early Church
Up to the 1955 Reform of the Roman Liturgy, the Vigil of Easter had undergone a
strange displacement. During the first six centuries, an authentic Vigil was the norm, with
ceremonies lasting throughout the night. It was a general belief that the that the Alleluia
should coincide with the dawning of Easter Day. By the eight century these same ceremonies
had been pushed back to the afternoon of Easter Saturday, and, by the tenth century, to Easter
Saturday morning. In reality the notion of ‘keeping vigil’ was entirely lost to be replaced by
‘special services’, like Matins, Lauds, Sext, None and
However, in the early days, before these irregular
practices became the norm, the Easter Vigil opened with the
blessing of the new Paschal Fire, the lighting of lamps and
candles and of the Paschal Candle. Of course these ceremonies would lose their visual and
symbolic impact through being celebrated in broad daylight. St. Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of this
night that was ‘as bright as day’. The assembled faithful gave themselves up to common prayer,
the singing of psalms and hymns, and the reading of the Scriptures commentated by the bishop
As we have already seen the vigil of Easter focused especially on the baptism of
catechumens who, in the more important churches, were very numerous. On the Holy Saturday
following the expulsion of St. John Chrysostom (407a.d.) from the See of Constantinople, there
were 3000 catechumens in this church alone. Such numbers were, of course, only encountered
in large cities; nevertheless, as Holy Saturday and the vigil of Pentecost were the only days on which baptism was administered,
even in smaller churches there was always a goodly number of catechumens.
This meeting of people in the darkness of the night often occasioned abuses which the clergy felt powerless to prevent by
active supervision unless by so anticipating the ceremonies that all of them could take place in daylight. [Since this section was
written before the 1955 reform, I wonder if the preceding remark is a justification of current practice rather than an explanation of
a change in practice?] Rabanus Maurus, an ecclesiastical writer of the ninth century, gives a detailed account of the ceremony of
Holy Saturday. The congregation remained silent in the church awaiting the dawn of the Resurrection, joining at intervals in
singing psalms and chanting and listening to the reading of the lessons. But by the Middle Ages, the Easter Vigil had effectively
been abandoned as a vigil.
In 1955, the Holy See offered the following reasons for its radical reform of the Easter Vigil:
“In the middle ages various causes conspired to bring them forward earlier and earlier into the day, so that eventually
they became morning functions, impairing the earlier harmony with the accounts given in the Gospel narratives. This
disharmony was most glaring on the Saturday, which became liturgically the day of Resurrection instead of that day’s eve,
and, liturgically again, from a day of darkest mourning became a day of light and gladness.”
THE ‘NEW’ ORDER FOR THE CATHOLIC EASTER VIGIL
(1) Service of Light
The service begins in the darkness of night. In kindling new fire and lighting
the paschal candle, we are reminded that Christ came as a light shining in darkness (John
1:5). Through the use of fire, candles, words, movement, and music, the worshiping
community becomes the pilgrim people of God following the “pillar of fire” given to us
in Jesus Christ, the light of the world. The paschal candle is used throughout the service
as a symbol for Jesus Christ. This candle is carried, leading every procession during the
vigil. Christ, the light of the world, thus provides the unifying thread to the service.
(2) Service of Readings
The second part of the vigil consists of a series of readings from the Old and
New Testaments. These lessons provide a panoramic view of what God has done for
humanity. Beginning with creation, we are reminded of our delivery from bondage in
the exodus, of God's calling us to faithfulness through the cry of the prophets, of God
dwelling among us in Jesus Christ, and of Christ's rising in victory from the tomb. The
readings thus retell our “holy history” as God's children, summarising the faith into
which we are baptised.
(3) Service of Baptism
In the earliest years of the Christian church, baptisms commonly took place at
the vigil. So this vigil includes baptism and/or the renewal of the baptismal covenant. As
with the natural symbol of light, water plays a critical role in the vigil. The image of
water giving life-nurturing crops, sustaining life, and cleansing our bodies—cannot be
missed in this part of the vigil. Nor is the ability of water to inflict death in drowning
overlooked. Water brings both life and death. So also there is death and life in Baptism,
for in Baptism we die to sin and are raised to life. Baptism unites believers to Christ's
death and resurrection.
(4) Service of the Eucharist
The vigil climaxes in a joyous celebration of the feast of the people of God. The risen Lord invites all to participate in
the new life he brings by sharing the feast which he has prepared. We thus look forward to the great Messianic feast of the kingdom
of God when the redeemed from every time and place “will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in
the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). The vigil thus celebrates what God has done, is doing, and will do.
The Four Main Elements of the Easter Lit-
urgy as found in the Anglican tradition.
(Many Church of Ireland parishes keep only to the Eucharist on Easter Day in the
morning. St Nicholas has all the four elements in its Easter Liturgy though we have
preferred to renew our baptismal vows as there have not been sufficient candidates
for baptism and a late hour for confirmation has not found much support.)
In both the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, the celebration of the
Eucharist is not permitted before the Easter Vigil. The Easter Liturgy contains four
main elements which are intended to form a single whole but may also be celebrated
These elements of lighting the Easter Candle and hearing the scriptures
developed into two of the four key constituent parts of the Easter Liturgy, namely (1)
the Service of Light and (2) the Vigil of Readings. The other two are the (3) Baptismal
Liturgy and the (4) Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
(1) The Vigil of Readings
The Vigil is properly a service for the night and never begins before sunset on
Holy Saturday. The heart of the Vigil is the reading of key passages from Scripture
telling of God’s saving love.
(2) The Service of Light
The Service of Light proclaims the resurrection of Christ from the dead in word and action, in silence and sound. The
Easter Candle, symbolising Christ, the light of the world, is lit and carried through the
Church and progressively passed to the whole congregation. The Exsultet, an ancient
Easter Song of Praise, is sung as the climax of this liturgy.
(3) The Baptismal Liturgy
The Easter Liturgy is not just one of the Easter services but a major Baptismal event.
It is therefore appropriate that there should be a celebration of Baptism and/or confirmation
on Easter Day, or at the very least, there should be a Re-affirmation of Baptismal Vows by
the Christian community as a public declaration of their union with Christ in his death and
(4) The Eucharist
The celebration of the Eucharist is the proper climax to the Easter Liturgy when we
are sacramentally reunited with our risen Lord. The most appropriate time for a celebration
of Holy Communion is in the early hours of Easter morning, but if it is celebrated during
the night it should be as late as possible, preferably after midnight. It is important to note that even if there is a non-Eucharistic
Vigil service that there must be at least one celebration of the Holy Communion in every parish church on Easter Day.
1. Discuss the similarities between the Roman Catholic and the Anglican celebration of the Easter Vigil?
2. What weaknesses do you detect in current practices in the respective traditions?