Symbols of the Easter Vigil

The climax of the Triduum is the Easter Vigil, the ‘night of nights’. The Christian community gathers on this night to ‘remember, celebrate and believe’ the dying and rising of Jesus – the paschal mystery in which we share through baptism and Eucharist.
The celebration begins outside the church in darkness. With great solemnity the light is kindled, the darkness vanishes and the resurrection is proclaimed: it is Easter, Passover.
We process into the church and hear readings from scripture interspersed with psalm responses. The next movement is to the baptismal font for the initiation of the elect and the renewal of our baptismal promises. Finally the climax – the Easter banquet – as bread is broken and wine is poured out.
There is a wonderful flow and rhythm to the Easter Vigil. The key to a good celebration is to respect this rhythm and to let the ritual and the symbols speak for themselves.
The power of darkness must be felt so that the light of Christ in the Easter candle can be truly appreciated. This is why the liturgical books emphasise that the Easter Vigil takes place after nightfall and before daybreak
The ritual calls for a rogus, a bonfire, to be burning as people gather on this night. Fire has a certain fascination; its warmth and light attract people and draw them together in a way that a tame indoor flame cannot.
A large new paschal candle of wax is lit from the Easter fire and leads the procession of people, also carrying candles, into the darkened church where the deacon or priest sings out the Easter Proclamation: “Rejoice! Sing! Exult! This is the night..!
The liturgy of the word for the Easter Vigil includes stories that make this night what it is – stories about creation, Abraham and Isaac, the escape of the Israelites through the parted waters, the prophet’s vision of the union of earth and heaven, the empty tomb. Parishes might be tempted to cut back on the nine readings given in the ritual, but on this night we need to hear again the pivotal stories of our rich salvation history.
Central to the Easter Vigil is the initiation of new members into the community through the waters of baptism. So much is lost if people are ‘moistened slightly into the kingdom’! The practice of full immersion speaks powerfully of rebirth and of death and resurrection. Immersed in the waters of the font, the candidate goes back to the womb, so to speak, to be reborn to new life in the Spirit. Immersion also symbolises our entering the tomb with Christ so as to die to sin and rise with him to new life. Everyone is touched, literally, by the baptismal water through the ritual gesture of sprinkling or signing with water.
The culmination of the initiation process is the moment when, for the first time, the newly initiated approach the table of the Eucharist. Here the central symbols are bread that is broken for all to eat and wine that is poured out for all to drink. The symbolism is weakened if people are fed from the tabernacle and not the table, or if communion from the cup is not offered to all.
Through light, word, water and table, we enter into the celebration of the paschal mystery, a joyful celebration which continues for the entire 50 days of the Easter season.


Elizabeth Harrington