Be “Vigil-ant”: Explaining the Church’s Longest Mass

by Adriana Watkins


It’s a Saturday night in early spring, and a few hundred Catholics are crowded around a fire pit outside the church doors. Don’t be fooled; you won’t find marshmallows or hot dogs at this family gathering. Instead, you’ve stumbled upon the beginning of the Easter Vigil, the lengthiest Mass in the Catholic Church—and undoubtedly the richest, the most profound, and the most anticipated, the crown of the year.


Now, that said, the Easter Vigil is perhaps a Catholic child’s worst nightmare. Usually clocking in between two and two-and-a-half hours (keep on adding, if you’re Orthodox), it’s no surprise the Roman Missal calls this Mass “the mother of all vigils.” Parishes have the option to include seven Old Testament readings, compared to the usual single passage; new Catholics are received into the Church; there’s quite a bit of processing and candle-lighting, and enough incense to fill your contact lenses with a holy fear. But there’s a reason for all this—the Vigil is the first Mass to open up the doors of Easter.


In other words, going to the Vigil is a little like being the first person at the empty tomb. There would be a lot you would want to say and do if you discovered someone had risen from the dead. In fact, there would probably be no other occasion in your life when you had more thoughts, more prayers, more poetry in you than in that moment. You might want it to last forever.


And last it does—there’s no shortage of any of those things (thoughts, prayers, poetry) at the Vigil. It begins as all vigils do, after sundown, marking the start of the new day just as Friday night marks the beginning of the Sabbath in Judaism. The large Easter fire is shared with all the churchgoers, who pass the flame to one another, lighting each other’s candles (sometimes more than once, if it’s a windy Vigil, which it always seems to be). Everyone goes inside, and in the darkness of the Church—the physical darkness of night, and the spiritual darkness of Good Friday—the priest or deacon sings three times, “The light of Christ!” And, finally, the real festivities have begun.


After this, a cantor sings a long poetic prayer called the Exsultet. You’ll recognize the English word that comes from that: exult, be happy, be glad. This is the invitation of the Vigil: to think about humanity and its fallen state, but to use this knowledge of the world to rejoice all the more in its rescue.


By now, the parishioners have blown out their candles, to the relief of every mother who was watching her five-year-old play with fire. Meanwhile, the readers piece together human history chapter by chapter, from Creation to the Flood to the Exodus from Egypt. Sung psalms, dispersed between each passage, renew the praises of the generations.


All of that history, of course, leads to the Gospel. Having just heard the Old Testament, the congregation can truly appreciate the significance of the Resurrection. (Then they sit back down to truly appreciate Father’s homily, with any luck.)


From here, the Mass takes a significant turn. New Catholics-to-be, who have been preparing for months to be baptized or received into the Church, are finally given the sacraments. The renewal of life that was just proclaimed in the Gospel is now on display for the congregation to see—it’s a very intelligent way to organize the Mass. The baptized Catholics are given white garments and candles, and some are confirmed as well. At any rate, the Mass goes on with more Catholics, more brothers and sisters, than it started with.


Between the Baptism and Communion, there are plenty of interesting things that go on, quirks and traditions and blessings. There’s a “Sprinkling Rite” wherein the priest goes through the church shaking holy water onto the congregation with a long stick called an aspergillum. And there is incense, singing, kneeling—but most importantly, the Eucharist, where Catholics receive the real Body and Blood of Christ into their formerly tomblike hearts. After this, there is not much left to do.


So why go to the Easter Vigil? Because you have a chance to experience what it’s like to discover Christ risen in the darkness of the night—why wait until morning? Children rarely have the patience to sleep until sunrise on Christmas, and this should be even more so on Easter. There will never be a better place to spend two hours than the threshold of an empty tomb.


Featured image courtesy of Simar via Wikimedia Commons

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