The Easter Vigil is the longest liturgy of the year. And it’s so, so worth your time.
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One of the least discussed but most concrete qualities of Catholic worship is that it is, generally speaking, short. On any given Sunday most Catholics can expect to be walking out of the church less than an hour after they entered. There are some parishes—those with particularly enthusiastic choirs or homilists, or a particularly lengthy list of announcements—that might run closer to an hour and a half. But even the most action-packed Sunday Mass does not rival the many Protestant Christian denominations that gather for three or four hours. I once complained about a Mass that lasted a full hour to a friend who is Baptist, and she laughed in my face.
The relative brevity of the Mass has to do, in part, with the fact that it has a universal formula. Wherever you go, no matter how strange the city, at Mass you can settle into the familiar rhythms of prayer. But there is one night each year, when much of this goes out the stained-glass window: The hours-long, candle-lit, incense infused, sacrament-packed Easter Vigil. It is a Mass that bears only a basic resemblance to typical Catholic weekend worship, but in breaking from that form it brings home the power of the Resurrection anew. And that is exactly why it is worth being there, for however long it takes.
The Easter Vigil is a new-ish rite (thanks, Pope Pius XII!) that feels ancient. The Roman Missal calls it the “mother of all vigils,” which sounds both very piously Catholic and also like a phrase Don LaFontaine might use in a movie trailer about a vigil that attacks a major American city.
The very form of the Easter Vigil is subversive in the best possible way. It begins only after nightfall, as do all good mysteries. And it starts with the congregation rising from their pews and heading outside to stand around what the rubric says must be a “blazing fire,” (or rogus ardens—don’t you love Latin translations?). There the fire is blessed and nails pressed into the paschal candle, a candle that should be, according to an essay on the website of the U.S. bishops, of “sufficiently large size that it may convey the truth that Christ is the light of the world.” This has got to be the world’s most distinctive and impossible unit of measurement.
My childhood parish stood on a busy street, and the fire was built close to the sidewalk, turning it into a kind of thin place, as the Irish might say. I recall feeling the heat of the flame and hearing the whoosh of passing cars and wondering what those drivers thought was happening. I imagine many of them were, in fact, surprised to witness hundreds of people following a giant candle into the church; first the thurifer (the altar server holding the censer), followed by the deacon, who holds the candle, then the ministers and the priest, then the congregation, like the Israelites following a pillar of fire. And all of this in just the first 20 minutes.
The Easter Vigil feels high stakes and, for all its meticulous rubrics, delightfully unpredictable. One year at a vigil my parents attended, rainy weather forced the relocation of the traditional bonfire from a fire pit outside the church to a tin foil pan inside the church. The pan was soon engulfed and the symbolic light of Christ had to be unceremoniously snuffed out with a fire extinguisher. Another year the deacon, overcome by a cloud of incense while singing the 10-minute Exsultet, passed out at the ambo. (He was O.K.)
But no matter how unpredictable it can be, I take comfort in the fact that you know one thing from the start: The liturgy will be long. This is going to take a while, folks, so you might as well be present to it and maybe even find grace in the process, in every scripted step and unscripted surprise.
Part of the reason for the vigil’s length is that the usual habit of three Sunday readings is replaced with up to seven (!) Old Testament readings, plus the responsorial psalms for each (!), the epistle and a Gospel reading. Together they tell the story of our shared history as the people of God, from the moment that “God created the heavens and the earth” to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah. We hear of the power of grace and wisdom, the promise of the regeneration of God’s people. We are urged to be “dead to sin” and listen as the women find Jesus’ empty tomb.
All emptiness eventually gives way to Alleluia.
It is possible to skip some of these readings, but the Roman Missal urges otherwise. “[A]ll of these must be read whenever it can be done,” the missal prescribes, “so that the character of a Vigil which takes place over some duration of time can be observed.” An essay about the vigil on the U.S. bishops’ website states, “Care should be taken that, particularly in regard to this night’s celebration of the Eucharist, the liturgy is not done in haste and that all the rites and words should be given their full force.” Which is to say that the seemingly endless nature of the Easter Vigil is a feature, not a bug.
Even the homily is required, with a specific reminder in the missal not to leave it out in the interest of brevity. Try to “capture the tremendous mysteries being celebrated on this most holy of nights” that same essay on the bishops website urges, offering what is at once the most necessary and unfulfillable of instructions.
The very form of the Easter Vigil reminds us that God works slowly. It reminds us that, even when we feel we are trapped in a time of endless waiting or wandering aimlessly in the desert, we are accompanied, that all of God’s work ever so gradually replaces the darkness with light, silence with bells, dry wells with water. All emptiness eventually gives way to Alleluia.
The Easter Vigil is both the Mass that is best-suited to kids (fire! bells!) and the one parents of young children are most likely to avoid (fire! bells!). In the spring I was pregnant with my first child, I made sure to attend the Easter Vigil, knowing that it likely would be years before I could attend again. Even without any parenting experience, it seemed to me a bad idea to juggle a dripping wax taper in one hand and a squirming toddler in another. I have not yet been brave enough to take my children to the vigil. Indeed, it has been several years since I have attended. But I have hope my family will attend together in years to come, because I want my children to know the liturgy that profoundly shaped my experience and understanding of the church.
As an eighth grader, I could think of few greater honors than being tapped to be an altar server at the Easter Vigil. As a newly minted server—the diocese having just granted permission for girls to join the year prior—serving at the vigil seemed like the ultimate responsibility, as well as a challenge. There were multiple new tasks that all needed to be choreographed, each heavy with symbolism.
The Easter Vigil is both the Mass that is best-suited to kids (fire! bells!) and the one parents of young children are most likely to avoid (fire! bells!).
Sure, you might be the crucifer (cross bearer) or the thurifer, as usual, but you also get to stand outside the church beside the bonfire and hand the priest the nails that are pressed into the Paschal candle. Or maybe you get to walk through the darkened aisles later, carrying that light to each taper held in hands stretched eagerly toward you at the end of a pew, and watching as faces slowly light up while people share that light with one another. Or maybe you get to ring the bells throughout the Gloria, feeling like your arm might break off at any moment. Or you might get to refill the holy water fonts that have been dry for 40 days. Plus there were fun, Olympian-style challenges like running the smoldering coals from the incense thurible out to the sewer grate in the church parking lot before the smoke could set off the fire alarm in the sacristy.
But you don’t need to be a young altar server at the Easter Vigil to appreciate any of these things. Taking it all in from the pews is also beautiful. To be in the midst of the faces lighting up, to dip your hand in the holy water after so many dry days, to bask in the glory of the Gloria. And, if you are particularly attentive, you may notice the proud smile of an eighth-grade girl who has been given a small chance to feel like a leader in a church where such opportunities tend to be rare for eighth-grade girls.
One of the most beautiful things about the Easter Vigil is what you don’t see. Those behind-the-scenes moments before and during the Mass. There’s Jackie, the master of ceremonies of sorts who fills the pitchers with the water that is blessed to fill the holy water fonts; who stands in the sacristy to switch on the church lights as the Gloria is sung. And there’s Bobby, who arrives hours before Mass to meticulously adorn the church, hauling in the Easter lilies and candles and, yes, some felt banners. And there is Father Bob, the catechist, poring over the details to make sure everything that is needed is there for the people being received into the church that night. In fact, he has been working tirelessly all year to make sure those being received are ready for the graces they will receive.
And that is the thing: If you are lucky, after you have covered all of salvation history, you will get to see new people entering the church. Adults are baptized and confirmed. They receive their first Eucharist. Actual human adults who have looked at the world and looked at the church and thought, Sure, sign me up. Adults who know about the sex abuse scandals or the shady Vatican real estate deals. Who know that some priests are still preaching like politicians. Who know that maybe the church could use more women in leadership or that the bulletin designs need sharpening.
But they also know that they have found truth and beauty here—here!—in this imperfect bunch of people all sneaking glimpses at their watches as the Vigil slouches toward the empty tomb. These adults are here. And they are willing to have water poured over their heads in front of a bunch of strangers in order to publicly declare that they believe; and then you proclaim the same, and now you’re officially all in it together.
And all of this is a good reminder that you are, in fact, in it. That you, too, have chosen to be a member of this church. And that you have to keep choosing it, even when it is hard, and even when the whole journey feels too long. That wherever you go, no matter how strange the city, at Mass you can settle into the familiar rhythms of prayer. That the world will constantly disrupt this rhythm, but it will also add new beats that will surprise and delight you. You will be reminded that all these people around you are choosing the church, but they are also choosing you, a fellow member of the body of Christ. And you will see them filing up to Communion like a walking litany of would-be saints, and you will feel that long-latent Alleluia rising through your chest. And then you, too, will join the line, walking with them, trying to build the kingdom of God, however long it may take.