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Timing of the Easter Vigil
Timing of the Easter Vigil
As a member of my parish liturgy committee, I am usually at the church on Holy Saturday afternoon helping set up for the Easter Vigil. It is quite common for people to call in and enquire about the time of Mass. When informed that it is not at the usual 6pm time but later because it is the Easter Vigil, they go off grumbling about the inconvenience of having Mass so late and determined to find another parish where Mass is on at the 'normal' time. The sad thing is that they will find such a place!
Why is the Vigil Mass in most parishes held at a later time than the usual timeslot?
The simple answer is that this is a requirement set down in the Sacramentary. The rubrics for the Easter Vigil state: The entire celebration of the Easter Vigil takes place at night. It must not begin before nightfall and it should end before daybreak on Sunday. It is amazing the number of sticklers for obeying the rubrics who ignore this clear instruction.
The American Bishops were very strong on the issue of the timing of the Easter Vigil in their circular letter "On Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts": Reprehensible are those abuses and practices which have crept in in many places whereby the Easter Vigil is celebrated at the time of day that it is customary to celebrate the weekly Sunday vigil Mass. So they are saying that the Easter Vigil should not be held at the normal Saturday evening time even if it is dark then.
But why all the fuss? Liturgy works 'by means of signs perceptible to the senses' (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 7). One of the primary signs at the Easter Vigil is that of darkness and light. In our words and symbols, we proclaim that the light of Christ has shattered the darkness. It doesn't make much sense to symbolise this with fires and candles when it is still twilight. We make a lie of the joyful words of the Exsultet, which proclaim over and over that 'This is the night when….', when it is patently clear that it is not nighttime at all! True darkness - the sort that allows the light of the Pascal candle to shine forth and light our way - does not occur until about 45 minutes after sunset and the sky had become dark.
Scheduling the Easter Vigil for the same time as every other week suggests that it is just a normal Mass, perhaps with a few trimmings. But it is so much more than that. This night is something different! It is our night of nights when fasting turns to feasting, the time when new members are initiated into the community, when we bless and light the new paschal candle from the blazing Easter fire, it is the night when we renew our baptism promises and become again Easter people.