Introduction to the Great Vigil of Easter
In the temple of Jerusalem it was necessary to cross successive courses to reach the central edifice. In this, the high priest passed from the sanctuary to the Holy of Holies. Thus we crossed the Sundays of Lent to the Easter Triduum, within which we now penetrate into the Holy of Holies of the Paschal Mystery. This is the summit of the summit.
Happy night with which Christmas night can not compete (despite its popularity), for the later one is only in view of this one: Christ came (Christmas) to release us (Easter). Without this night, all the Christian liturgy floats away: if Christ is not risen, our faith is hollow, there is nothing in it (1 Cor 15:14); But if Christ is risen, we all rise with him (idem).
During the first years of Christianity, which were still very close to the event, the community celebrated the Paschal Christ every day after the sabbath, called dies-Dominica, the day of the risen Lord. She gathered by night and watched until dawn, thinking that Christ would return as He was risen at the dawn of a Sunday.
Very quickly, and perhaps as early as the end of the first century (Paul has already Christianized the Jewish Passover, 1 Cor 5: 7), the Easter night is celebrated with more brilliance (the dispute to fix the date dates back to the middle of the 2nd century). Saint Augustine calls her “the mother of all the vigils”.
In the ninth century, the office was already celebrated on Saturday afternoon. A change in the practice of fasting finally led to shifting the office to Saturday morning with all the possible illogicalities (nocturnal vigil in broad daylight ...). These contradictions have their origin in a slow dissolution of the mystery of Jesus in particular feasts without deep link between them.
Thus the paschal mystery was no longer understood as a whole, and the feasts were celebrated as “detached pieces”.
The decree of Pius XII of February 9, 1951, restoring the ancient liturgy of the night Vigil, can be considered the happy outcome of a long liturgical effort and the starting point of the conciliar reform renewing the liturgy as a whole.
It is therefore a feast of the night, a vigil which, in strict liturgy, should last until the early morning, as it has long been practiced. That, at least, we no longer come to the illogicality and loss of meaning of the Holy Week as it was before the Council when, because “it is more practical”, we celebrated a liturgy of the night, while it was still clear. Invoking the practical aspect, the so-called good of the faithful is here displaced, for it is to do them a disservice only to oblige them to illogicalities.
From a psychological point of view, it is also necessary to choose a time other than the one in which Mass is ordinarily celebrated on Saturday evening, so as not to give the impression of a Saturday Mass a little longer and more complicated. It is a matter of marking the exceptional character of this Vigil. And let one take his time! Tonight, do not be in a hurry. Ship this liturgy in 40 minutes to run with another in one and same breath, is it still “the night of true happiness”? Here, more than elsewhere, there is a reduction in the number of offices. Let one gather in a central church where the priests of the neighborhood can celebrate a worthy liturgy with a consistent assembly and a little brilliance.
The liturgical service has a wonderful unity. Everything is Passover, that is, passage: the assembly passes from the square in front of the church to the interior of the sanctuary; The readings meditate the passage from the hurley-burly to the creative order, from the Red Sea to the Promised Land, from the heart of stone to the heart of flesh and, of course, from the suffering Christ to Christ in glory; The catechumens “pass” the waters of baptism, and we ourselves, who renew our profession of faith, want to pass from a resigned life to a more engaged life. All in the passage from sadness to Easter joy, from fasting to eucharistic meal with the Risen One.
The Vigil is structured as follows:
Celebration of the Light where, in the fire and the Paschal candle, express the joy of our liberation.
Celebration of the Word: it is more developed than usual, the assembly meditates on the “wonders”, the great stages of this liberation.
Celebration of the Baptism in which the catechumens receive sacramentally their liberation, and where we renew our own commitments.
Celebration of the Eucharist, the summit of the whole, the communion par excellence to the mystery of Easter liberation.
Office of Light
The feast - the feast of feasts - begins with the blessing of the new fire and the paschal candle. A beautiful new fire, flamboyant, symbol of the Spirit that animates the resurrected Christ. The Paschal candle represents Christ, brighter than the pillar of fire that guided Israel in its march towards the Promised Land. Following this Christ-light we penetrate into the dark church, singing three times: Light of Christ - we give thanks to God. The tone is given: all this liturgy will be thanksgiving.
When all have entered the church, a deacon sings the praise of the Paschal candle. If one still has the meaning of the signs and symbols, this eulogy seizes the heart when, in the midst of a sea of candles moving the capitals of the columns and the radiant faces of the faithful, rises, light, the single melody of the Exultet: Exult with joy. Praise of the Night, praise of the Light, marvelous correspondence between Israel passing the Red Sea and the Church on her way. Bold Cries: O blessed fault of Adam which causes us such a Redeemer! Action of grace. Prayer for the world. An unparalleled song to which one must give the serene splendor which it deserves and during which the lively acclamation of the assembly should not be missing.
The Paschal candle has its origin in the Roman custom of burning two enormous candles, of the greatness of a man, on the night of Easter. The Gallo-franc rites were contented with a single candle and charged it with symbols. They made of it a true personage, Christ, represented in His glorious passion by five grains of incense which meant His five wounds. The figure of the current year, engraved in wax, proclaims Christ as Master of time and history.
This candle is carried in procession at the beginning of the Great Vigil of Easter, and all the candles of the assembly gradually light up to it, in the triple cry: Light of Christ! The Exultet sings it in an overflowing lyricism. It holds a special place in the choir until Pentecost (and not only until the Ascension as in the past). The rest of the year it is placed in a worthy place, preferably near the baptismal font where the candles of baptism will light up at its fire. The custom is spread more and more to make it burn at the burials, as the flame of Resurrection.
Liturgy of the Word
After the song of Light, one sits down to meditate, at leisure, great and beautiful texts, a veritable overview of the stages of God’s plan. Still according to the resurrection of Christ, the baptism of the neophytes and, of course, the renewal of our own baptismal promises.
From the Old Testament we have seven readings. Their choice is guided by a tradition that goes back to the Jewish liturgy. In the Paschal night, it commemorated the “four nights”: the creation of the world (our first reading), the sacrifice of Abraham (our second), the passage of the Red Sea (our third) And that of the coming of the Messiah (our last three readings). The liturgy, with its defending body, concedes that only three are read, of which the passage of the Red Sea is always compulsory. If you make a choice, the best will be that of the “four nights”.
These readings, longer than usual, as is proper for this unique Vigil, will deliver all their wealth if a brief introduction which makes the link between what is read and what is experienced by the assembly; If the community takes an active part in answering by the psalm or a suitable hymn; If each stage is well punctuated by a more solemn prayer than usual (they all come from the Gelasian sacramentary - 7th century).
Like lovers who take up the family album to re-read their love, from the first encounters to the birth of the children, the Easter liturgy unfolds the major stages of the love plan of God towards humanity that culminates in the Passover of Christ and the “birth” of the catechumens on this blessed night. That, of course, also leads to our “rebirth” in the renewal of our own baptismal promises.