Volume Three, Issue I
Easter Vigil at Old St. Mary’s
From ancient times, the Easter Vigil has been considered the pre-eminent event in the Church’s liturgical cycle. Since the restoration of the rites of Holy Week by order of the Vatican in 1955, the vigil has taken on its former grandeur and primacy of place.
Beginning outdoors and in the darkness of Holy Saturday night, the Easter Fire is kindled and blessed. The Easter Candle is blessed using a beautiful ritual full of symbolism and Christological meaning. As the celebrant, using a stylus, scribes the vertical beam of the cross into the candle he prays: Christ yesterday and today, as he traces the horizontal beam: the beginning and the end. He then inscribes the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet Alpha and Omega, pronouncing Christ’s eternity. The date is then traced: all time belongs to Him (first digit), and all the ages (second digit), to Him be glory and power (third digit), through every age forever. Amen.(fourth digit). Five grains of incense are inserted into the traced cross representing the wounds Christ endured: By His holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us. Amen. Now the paschal candle is lit from the fire with the words: May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds. A procession immediately forms with the Easter Candle leading. At three Station along the way, the candle is held aloft with the chant: Lumen Christi (light of Christ) and the procession responds: Deo Gratias (thanks be to God). The Faithful in the procession bear small candles, progressively lit from the flame of the Easter Candle, into the darkened church.
As the procession reaches the sanctuary, the priest takes his place at the ambo, and by the light of the paschal candle, chants what is arguably the most moving and exuberant prayer of any liturgy of the Church: The Exultet.
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!…
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!…
Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!…
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!…
This is the night when Jesus Christ
broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave…
Father how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.
O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!…
Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth
and man is reconciled with God!…
After the chanting of the Exsultet, all are seated for the seven vigil readings surveying the whole of salvation history before the Incarnation. Between each reading, the choir sings a scriptural responsory drawn from the Church’s vast treasury of sacred music. Augmented by a string ensemble, Old St. Mary’s Choir, during these responsories, has ample opportunity to explore the wide range of compositions written over the ages for this great vigil. The modern Easter Vigil is the only liturgy approaching the solemn ritual and magnificent ceremony of the numerous extended night vigils common in the Catholic Church of centuries past.
After the seventh reading and responsory, the altar candles are lit and the Gloria is triumphantly sung to the ringing of the church bells, which have remained silent since Holy Thursday. Next, a selection from the Epistle to the Romans is read where St. Paul tells us that through Baptism we share with Christ in the paschal mystery. Following this reading, the Alleluia before the Gospel returns since its cessation at the beginning of Lent. St. Matthew’s account of the women discovering the empty tomb has been shown by historical evidence to be the joyous Gospel of the Easter Vigil for over a thousand years.
The Liturgy of Baptism follows the homily and begins with the Litany of the Saints. In a similar form, this litany can be traced at least as far back as the seventh century. As the Litany invoking the aid of 26 saints and a number of petitions progresses, the priest and any candidates for Baptism process to the font where the new Easter Water is blessed. From its most ancient origins, the Easter Vigil has been intimately associated with the rite of Baptism and entry into the Church of catechumens. If any are to be baptized, the ritual takes place at this time using the standard formulas common to all Catholic Baptisms. After the individual baptisms, and confirmations, if adults are entering the Church, all present re-light their candles from the Easter Candle and are invited by the priest to renew their baptismal vows: …Now that we have completed our Lenten observance, let us renew the promises we made in baptism when we rejected Satan and his works, and promised to serve God faithfully in His holy Catholic Church. After leading the Faithful in renewing their promises, the priest proceeds through the nave sprinkling the people with holy water while the “Vidi aquam” is sung by all: I saw water coming forth from the temple; Ezekiel, Ch. 47, set to a tenth century chant.
The vigil portion of the liturgy now complete, the first Mass of Easter begins with the Offertory. Special insertions, in use for at least thirteen hundred years, are added to the Eucharistic Prayer referring to this night of the Resurrection and recognizing the newly baptized. Mass progresses as normal through Holy Communion when the Blessed Sacrament is returned to the tabernacle and the vigil lamp is lit for the first time since Holy Thursday. After the final blessing with the festive Ite Missa est Alleluia(the Mass is ended Alleluia) and corresponding Deo gratias Alleluia (thanks be to God Alleluia), the glorious strains of the German/English hymn “Jesus Christ is Ris’n Today” resound through the church and into the night.
On an Easter Vigil night some sixteen hundred years ago the great St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church exhorted his flock: “How much more eagerly should we keep watch during this vigil, the mother of all sacred vigils, when the whole world watches?… Let us then watch and pray: that both within and without we may celebrate this vigil. God speaks to us in the holy Scriptural readings. Let us speak to Him in our prayers. If we listen obediently to His voice, He to Whom we pray dwells within us.”
The Easter Vigil, as celebrated at Old St. Mary’s, is a truly unique and fitting way to stand watch and welcome the great feast day of our salvation