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Easter Vigil in the Holy Night, The Mother of All Vigils

    by Fr. Jun Bermejo

    Fr. Jun Bermejo holds a Licentiate degree in Systematic Theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome (1987) and a Doctorate in Liturgy, Pontifical Athenaeum of Saint Anselm, Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Rome (1999). He was a Professor in Liturgy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross from 1990 – 2008.

    The Expression Mother of All Vigils

    The introductory instruction of the Roman Missal for the second part of the Easter Vigil, the Liturgy of the Word says, “In this Vigil, the mother of all vigils, nine readings are provided, namely seven from the Old Testament and two from the New (the Epistle and the Gospel)” (see Philippine Edition, page 336). In Christian antiquity, Saint Augustine (lived 354-430, baptized by St. Ambrose of Milan in 387) would call the Easter Vigil as the “mother of all vigils” because on this night the Church stays awake, watching over, the resurrection of Christ (see Sermon 219), and celebrates it in the Sacraments. Through this expression employed by the Liturgy and the Fathers of the Church, Holy Mother Church would like Christians to appreciate the great value of participating in the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night.

    Mystagogical Catechesis, the Pedagogy of the Liturgy

    Participating in the Liturgy of the Easter Vigil Mass that takes place at night is indeed powerful and awesome. The Liturgy can be pedagogically effective in helping the faithful to enter more deeply into the mystery being celebrated.

    In the Church’s most ancient tradition, the process of Christian formation always had an experiential character. It centered on a vital and convincing encounter with Christ, as proclaimed by authentic witnesses. This initial encounter gains depth through catechesis and finds its source and summit in the celebration of the Eucharist. Furthermore, this basic structure of the Christian experience calls for a process of mystagogy (Sacramentum Caritatis #64). 

    This mystagogical approach to catechesis, which draws from the celebration itself of the mysteries, would lead the faithful to understand more deeply the mysteries being celebrated. It is a catechesis that flows from the mysteries celebrated and is thus a method that is appropriate to the Liturgy.

    The basic structure of mystagogical catechesis takes into account three elements. First, mystagogical catechesis interprets the rites in the light of the events of our salvation. Second, mystagogical catechesis is concerned with presenting the meaning of the signs contained in the rites. Third, mystagogical catechesis is concerned with bringing out the significance of the rites for the Christian life in all its dimensions.

    Per Ritus et Preces

    First, to identify the events of our salvation which cast light that will enable us to interpret the rites that make up the Easter Vigil Mass, let us look briefly into some significant texts and the arrangement of the rites that make up the Easter Vigil Mass. The reason why it is truly right and just to acclaim the Lord on this night above all and to laud God yet more gloriously is clearly seen when Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. He is the true Lamb who has taken away the sins of the world. By dying, he has destroyed our death; and by rising, he restored our life (Preface of Easter I). In a nutshell, the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s Resurrection is the key to understand deeply the mystery being celebrated.

    In order to provide sufficient context to appreciate the analysis of some specific ritual elements, let us go over the four main parts of the Celebration of the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night. The first main part is the Lucernarium or liturgy of the light, which is made up of a) the blessing of the fire, b) the preparation of the candle and c) the Easter Proclamation (also known as Exsultet). The second main part is the Liturgy of the Word with abundant readings from the Old and the New Testament, as well as Psalms and Prayers. The third main part is the Baptismal Liturgy which comprises the litany of saints, blessing of baptismal water, renewal of baptismal promises, Baptism and Confirmation. The fourth main part is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which we are familiar with.

    Verbal and Non-Verbal Signs and Symbols that Speak to Us

    The Liturgy of the Easter Vigil abounds in signs, but to tackle all of them will go beyond the limits of this article. We will focus on those elements that come from the Lucernarium and the Liturgy of the Word. The verbal signs are the readings from the Old and New Testament, the Psalms, the prayers, and the Exsultet or Easter Proclamation. The non-verbal signs are the cosmic elements of night and darkness, fire, the Paschal Candle, and incense. Each one of these signs, in its own way, speaks to us and immerses us into the mystery of the Risen Christ. In this section we are going to explore the second concern of mystagogical catechesis, that of presenting the meaning of the signs contained in the rites.

    The Verbal Signs

    Word is the highest of all the signs in the Liturgy. They express the meaning of the material elements and objects, the gestures, postures, actions, etc.

    The Word of God is precisely the powerful element that puts forward the message of salvation. The Liturgy of the Word of the Easter Vigil Mass, the mother of all vigils, provides nine readings: seven from the Old Testament; two from the New, the Epistle and Gospel (of the Resurrection of the Lord). It narrates to us the history of salvation that culminates in the Resurrection of Christ. God himself speaks to us in the Liturgy of the Word. The peaceful and abundant Old Testament readings gently and progressively unfolds to us the salvific plan of God.

    The Psalms bring us to respond to the Word of God in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets. The Psalms are Word of God. The people of God recur to the Word of God to respond to the Word God spoke in the readings. The dynamic succession of Reading – Responsorial Psalm – Prayer portrays the dialogue between God and man in the Liturgy.

    The Old Testament readings and Psalms are like the prelude to the New Testament. We recall that in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus enlightened and cheered up the two disheartened disciples telling them “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled (Luke 24, 44).” The historicity of the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection is beyond doubt. The Gospel proclamation taken from Matthew, or Mark, or Luke vividly places us before the Risen Lord in a personal encounter. Christ himself speaks to us in the Gospel about His Resurrection.

    The Exsultet or Easter Proclamation is word in music, as it is sung beside the Paschal Candle. As we listen to the chant, we will be able to contemplate with joy and gladness the Risen Lord. Exult… let Angels of God exult. Be glad, let earth be glad. Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice. Invoke with me the mercy of God almighty that I may sing this candle’s perfect praise. It is truly right and just to give thanks to the Lord our God.

    What comes next is the proclamation of God’s great work of salvation in favor of man. The History of Salvation is modulated beautifully in glorious and happy song, the glorious triumph of Christ the Redeemer over sin.

    The Non-Verbal Signs

    Night and Darkness are signs and symbols arising from the cosmos. The entire celebration of the Easter Vigil must take place during the night. The lights of the church are extinguished. The passage of our Lord Jesus Christ from death to new life is conveyed.

    The blessing of the fire portrays God sanctifying the new fire that inflames the faithful with heavenly desire, purifies the minds of the faithful, to reach the festivities of unending splendor.

    The Paschal Candle represents Christ, the Alpha and Omega. All time belongs to Him. The glorious wounds of Christ the Lord shine in His glory and power. The Light of Christ is radiant. The Paschal Candle has more than ordinary force and beauty. It is a lighted candle: the Light of Christ that shines in darkness. The Paschal Candle rises firmly fixed on a broad-based, long-shafted candle stand. The candle with the simple but noble etchings that speak of Christ stands distinct against whatever background, consuming in the flame that flickers on the pure substance of the wax in softly shining light, a symbol of self-less generosity of Christ the Redeemer (see, R. Guardini, Sacred Signs, Candles).

    The incense accompanies the procession of the Paschal Candle. It is used to honor the Paschal Candle and the Book for the Easter Proclamation, representing the sweet scent of Christ (see 2 Cor 2, 15). The offering of incense is a generous and beautiful rite. The bright grains of incense laid upon the red-hot charcoal, the censer is swung, and the fragrant smoke rises in clouds. In the rhythm and the sweetness there is a musical quality (emotion-aesthetic-mystery); and like music also there is the entire lack of practical utility: it is a prodigal waste of precious material. It is a pouring out of unconditional love. It is free and objectless as beauty. It burns and is consumed like love that lasts through death. Incense is the symbol of prayer. Like pure prayer it has in view no object of its own; it asks nothing for itself. It rises in adoration and thanksgiving to God for his great glory.

    Prayer is a profound act of worship, that asks neither why nor wherefore. It rises like beauty, like sweetness, like love. The more there is in it of love, the more sacrifice, and when the fire has wholly consumed the sacrifice, a sweet savor ascends. (See R. Guardini, Sacred Signs, Incense)

    We will now conclude considering the third element of mystagogical catechesis of drawing out the significance of the rites for the Christian life. Previously, we have identified the events of our salvation. We have appreciated as well, the meaning of the signs contained in the rites.

    The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night itself celebrated well, with the full, active, conscious, pious, and fruitful participation of the priests and the Christian faithful, leads all by the hand to that spiritual attitude of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and sacrifice. The process of being identified with Christ has an experiential character. It is centered on a living and convincing encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, traveling through the paths of contemplation so that our life is the life of Christ in us: it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2, 20).

    Written on the Feast of Saint Mark, Evangelist 2023

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