The Easter Vigil: Christ Be Our Light!*



The rubrics of the Missale Romanum remind us that this “mother of all vigils” is the “greatest and most noble of all solemnities and it is to be unique in every single Church” ( Missale Romanum, “Rubrics for the Easter Vigil” (EV), no.2). On this holy night, the Church keeps watch, celebrating the resurrection of Christ in the sacraments and awaiting his return in glory.–“The Roman Missal and the Easter Vigil“, USCCB

Once Again We Celebrate

This coming  March 31st, I will once again read Genesis 1, the Creation story, as the opening reading in the Liturgy of the Word for the Easter Vigil Mass.  The Sister who plays the organ for this Mass has said, “how appropriate that you be the reader; all that you’ve written on the Big Bang and evolution.”  But I think, rather, how privileged am I to be able to lector at this Mass and to read this particular Scripture passage, the first of the nine that chronicle the journey of God’s chosen people through the Old Testament and to Christ.

For the past five years, my wife and I have attended the Easter Vigil Mass at a local nursing home run by the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.  We go there rather than attend our local parish church Mass because I have been asked to lector, because there is an intimacy that makes the celebration more compelling. and because it is shorter (only three of the Old Testament readings instead of the usual six, and there are no baptisms or confirmations).  Like the other old folks who attend this Mass, residents of the nursing home and of the retirement village around it, we tire easily and have to get to bed early.

Although the nursing home chapel is quite a bit smaller than our parish church, it is able to accommodate residents, the visiting family members of residents, Sisters of the order, and those like us who prefer this Mass.   There is an organ, but no choir; nevertheless, the congregation (some with voices a little quavery) join in the hymns with good will.

The Service of Light, Lumen Christi, Now

As the liturgy begins, the Chapel is dark, except for a brazier containing a small fire at the back of the Church. The altar and ambo are bare;  there is no water in the holy water basin.  Most members of the congregation hold a candle with a paper cup below to catch the drippings. A few, those who because of one disability or another cannot cope with the dripping wax or the fire, are given electric candles.  The service of light begins as Fr. John blesses the fire and prepares the Paschal Candle;  he takes a nail (stylus) and marks the candle, saying:

Christ yesterday and today, (vertical arm of the cross
the Beginning and the End, (horizontal arm of the cross) 
the Alpha (alpha above the cross
and the Omega (omega. below the cross)
All time belongs to him (a 2 in upper left corner of cross) 
and all the ages (a 1 in upper right corner of cross) 
To him be glory and power (a 4 in lower left corner)
through every age and for ever. Amen. (numeral 0 in lower right corner)

Fr. John lights the Paschal Candle from the fire, saying

May the light of Christ, rising in glory, 
dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.

Fr. John offers the Paschal Candle to Sister Mary Ann, the Sacristan, who lights her candle and who then offers her lit candle to one of the EOMHC, ministers of Holy Communion. Each person then offers his candle to light that of the people in other rows and to the side of the chapel, and the chapel begins to glow with the light of many fires. It reminds me of how the gospel spread: the apostles giving light to many others and each of these, in turn, passing the light of faith to many others.

Fr. John chants “Christ be our Light,” three times, echoed each time by the congregation, as he processes to the ambo to chant the Exultat and the Liturgy begins.

Remembrance of My First Easter Vigil

As I watch the light spread through the congregation from a focal point of tiny flames at the back of the chapel to a forest of flickering lights, I think back to my first Easter Vigil Mass, 23 years ago, when I entered the Church.  As a catechumen, one who had not been baptized, I was wearing a white baptismal robe.   My thoughts were confused and expectant.   Could baptism truly remove, without the Sacrament of Confession,  60 years or more of sin?   Would my doubts about some points of doctrine and dogma be removed?  (They have.)  Would I be able to conform to what would be required of me as a Catholic? (I hope I have.)

The Service of Light at our parish church was more elaborate than at the nursing home chapel.  A very large grill with charcoal and wood was prepared in the Church parking lot, across the street, by the Boy Scout troop associated with the church.  The Scouts had a problem getting the fire going because we had a light snowfall, but it was done.   The congregation lit their candles in the parking lot and processed in, lighting the candles of those who had remained in the Church.

My memory goes dim (the neurons are much further apart than they were 23 years ago ), but a few memorable things stick in my mind, other than the vows, baptism, and confirmation.   I remember a stirring soprano solo of Miriam’s song, Exodus 15:21, “Horse and Rider he has cast into the sea.”   I remember the homily of our pastor at that time and how it reassured me that my conversion was a gift from God and His only begotten Son.  And I remember also that the Service of Light seemed to me then to be symbolic, but in a way I did not fully appreciate then.

Christ Be Our Light

I’ve written another post on this blog, “Christ Be Our Light…” in which I offer a “Theology of Light” and its relation to physics.  I won’t repeat those thoughts here, other than to say when we chant  “Christ be our light,” it is not meant only symbolically;  that Christ is light is more than a symbol.


*This post will not give a detailed exposition of the Easter Vigil liturgy (see here for that).  Rather, I’ll focus on that part of the liturgy that I find especially stirring, the Service of Light.

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