Holy Saturday 'mother of all vigils'

The same idea (if not the identical timeline) is found in the Easter Vigil today, which is the high point of the Easter triduum and is filled with an abundance of readings, symbols, ceremony and sacraments.

The Easter Vigil, the Church states, ranks "the mother of all vigils" (General Norms, No. 21). Being a vigil -- a time of anticipation and preparation -- it takes place at night, starting after nightfall and finishing before daybreak on Easter, thus beginning and ending in darkness. It consists of four general parts: the Service of Light, the Liturgy of the Word, Christian Initiation and Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Light in the darkness

The Service of Light begins outdoors (or in a space outside of the main sanctuary) and in darkness. A fire is lit and blessed, and then the paschal candle, which symbolizes the light of Christ, is lit from the fire by the priest, who proclaims: "May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds."

The biblical themes of light removing darkness and life overcoming death suffuse the entire vigil. The paschal candle will be placed in the sanctuary (usually by the altar) for the Easter season, then will be kept in the baptistery so that when the sacrament of baptism is administered the candles of the baptized can be lit from it.

The faithful then join in procession back to the main sanctuary. The deacon (or priest, if no deacon is present), carries the paschal candle, lifting it three different times and chanting: "Christ our Light!" The people respond by singing, "Thanks be to God!" Everyone's candles are lit from the paschal candle and the faithful return in procession into the sanctuary.

Then the Exultet is sung by the deacon (or priest or cantor). This is an ancient and beautiful poetic hymn of praise to God for the light of the paschal candle. It may be as old as St. Ambrose (d. 397) and has been part of the Roman tradition since the ninth century.

In the darkness of the church, lit only by candles, the faithful listen to the song of light and glory:

Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,

radiant in the brightness of your King!

Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!

Darkness vanishes forever!

And, concluding:

May the Morning Star which never sets

find this flame still burning:

Christ, that Morning Star,

who came back from the dead,

and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,

your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Salvation history

The Liturgy of the Word follows, consisting of seven readings from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. These readings include the story of creation (Genesis 1 and 2), Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22), the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14 and 15), the prophet Isaiah proclaiming God's love (Isaiah 54), Isaiah's exhortation to seek God (Isaiah 55), a passage from Baruch about the glory of God (Baruch 3 and 4), a prophecy of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36), St. Paul on being baptized into Jesus Christ (Romans 6) and the Gospel of Mark about the empty tomb discovered on Easter morning (Mark 16).

The readings constitute an overview of salvation history and God's various interventions into time and space, beginning with Creation and concluding with the angel telling Mary Magdalene and others that Jesus is no longer dead: "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here."

Through these readings, "the Lord 'beginning with Moses and all the prophets' (Lk 24:27, 44-45) meets us once again on our journey and, opening up our minds and hearts, prepares us to share in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup" (General Norms, No. 11).

Some of the readings are focused on baptism, that sacrament which brings man into saving communion with God's divine life. Consider, for example, St. Paul's remarks in Romans 6: "We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life."

Easter is in many ways the season of baptism, the sacrament of Christian initiation, in which those who formally lived in darkness and death are buried and baptized in Christ, emerging filled with light and life.

Moment of conversion

From the early days of the ancient Church the Easter Vigil has been the time for adult converts to be baptized and enter the Church.

After the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, catechumens (those who have never been baptized) and candidates (those who have been baptized in a non-Catholic Christian denomination) are initiated into the Church by (respectively) baptism and confirmation.

The faithful are sprinkled with holy water and renew their baptismal vows. Then all adult candidates are confirmed and general intercessions are stated.

The Easter Vigil concludes with the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the reception of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the crucified and risen Lord. For as Eastern Catholics sing hundreds of times during the paschal season, "Christ is risen from the dead; by death he conquered death, and to those in the graves, he granted life!"