Project Canterbury

The Meaning of the Easter Vigil.

By Kenneth N. Ross.

London: The Church Union, no date.


Easter is the crown of the Christian year and the one day when all are required to receive Holy Communion. In early days it was celebrated with a service of great length, starting on the evening of Holy Saturday and continuing all night. It was the great time for admitting new members into the Church, and much of the Vigil service was taken up with the instructing of candidates in preparation for their Baptism and Confirmation. But for many hundreds of years it has been customary to anticipate the service by holding it on the morning of Holy Saturday. This has had two results: very few people attend it, since they were mostly at work, and much of the language of the rite seemed inappropriate: the Paschal Candle could hardly be said to illuminate the darkness of the night at 11 a.m. on Holy Saturday morning! It is a great advantage that it should now be celebrated at the right time, at night, and that, as far as may be, the whole congregation should be present, for, as no other service can, the Easter Vigil conveys the whole meaning of what it is to be a Christian in a most dramatic and moving way. The new version of the old rite is somewhat shorter, and better adapted to the present century.


At the Last Supper Jesus spoke of the new covenant in His blood which He was inaugurating. What was the old covenant which He was superseding? It was the one established by Moses after the deliverance from Egypt, to which all subsequent generations looked back. Jeremiah (XXIII, 7) had anticipated an even mightier deliverance than that from Egypt: “The days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.”

[4] This deliverance from Egypt was always much in the mind of the Jews because at Passover every year there was a solemn re-enacting of the original Passover feast. First the house was swept clean of leaven and bread, then the special crockery was produced, the bitter herbs and biscuits put on the table, together with the lamb, which had been ceremonially killed and was now to be solemnly eaten by the household. Wine always accompanied this joyous meal of commemoration, and psalms of thanksgiving were sung. It took place in the middle of the night, and latterly at least one empty place was reserved at table for Elijah, should he return and wish to partake of the Passover too.

Exodus XII tells the original story, and describes how the Israelites were safe in their houses, sprinkled on the doorposts with the blood of the sacrificial lamb, while outside in the darkness the angel of death was slaying the Egyptian firstborn. So they escaped from Egypt, the waters of the Red Sea coming to the rescue when they were in danger of being overtaken. They were saved by water, and with thankful hearts offered sacrifice at Mount Sinai, and swore that they would observe the covenant which God there made with them. In token of this Moses took the blood of the animal victim and sprinkled the people with it, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.” (Exodus XXIV, 8).

Both before and after this the Israelites were accompanied by the visible token of God’s presence with them, the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night. (Exodus XIII, 21).

As the great deliverance and the establishment of the old covenant were commemorated, the Jews must often have looked forward to further deliverances, and best of all to the Day of the Lord which would right their wrongs. And Jeremiah had looked forward to a new covenant that God would make in the future (XXXI, 31-34). When would that prophecy be fulfilled?


Jesus regularly each year observed the ritual of the Jewish Passover. It must have been much in His mind at the Last Supper. At the outset of His ministry He had been pointed out by St. John the Baptist as the Lamb of God that taketh away [4/5] the sin of the world (St. John I, 29), and on Calvary His blood flowed for man’s salvation. A greater than Moses, He had found men enslaved not to Pharaoh but to Satan, and was determined to end not the oppression of a few hundred years, but the agelong tyranny of sin and death. Deliverance from moral and spiritual oppressors involved moral and spiritual means; man could not be recovered for God by mere miracle. So He trod the way of the cross, not as a helpless victim in the toils of unlucky circumstance, but confronting Satan and death fearlessly, and thus opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

His victory is communicated to His followers by means of the sacraments which He instituted. In order to join His Church it is necessary to pass like the children of Israel through the waters. By Baptism His people are transferred from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of life. We die to sin and are buried in the waters of the font, and emerge to a new and better life of freedom (Romans VI, 4). Like our fathers we partake of spiritual food and drink here in the wilderness of life, food and drink which are Christ Himself (I Corinthians X). Renouncing our allegiance to Satan and defying his hosts, trusting in our great Leader and promising obedience to Him, we fare forth into the wilderness and enter the promised land itself, tasting of the milk and honey that is the food of angels. The Blessed Sacrament is at once our rations for the journey and the festive meal which marks the journey’s end. It leads us to heaven, and is heaven itself.

Yet neither for the Israelites nor for ourselves is a merely external participation enough. All our fathers passed through the sea, all partook of the same spiritual food and drink, but with many of them God was not well pleased, and they perished for their sins in the wilderness. Merely to receive the Christian sacraments is not enough: we must have faith and we must have love. We too shall be overthrown in the wilderness unless we have renounced Egypt and its flesh-pots in our hearts as well as with our lips. The symbolical and mystical washing is of little avail if we return to wallowing in the mire of sin (II Peter II, 22), and the spiritual food which God gives for our strengthening will, if we disdain it or abuse it, turn to our weakening and finally to our death (I Corinthians XI, 29, 30)


Christians, like the Jews, should live in a state of expectancy, not indeed looking for some divine intervention greater than that which has already taken place: that would be absurd. But Christians should be looking forward to the coming of Jesus their Saviour on the clouds of heaven. At every Mass we are reminded that the Sacrament of the Altar itself will have an end: the solemn memorial of Christ’s death is appointed only “until his coming again.” “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: lest coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch.” (St. Mark XIII, 35-37). Those words were said by our Lord during Holy Week, and in early times it was widely believed that the Second Coming of Christ would take place during the Vigil service at Easter. Perhaps it was due to reflection on the text, “At midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.” (St. Matthew XXV, 6). At all events in the Easter Vigil we make an effort to be what we ought to be always—full of faith and expectancy. On the most sacred night of the whole year the Church of Jesus Christ waits for her Lord. That He will come there is no doubt; but will it be sacramentally or on the clouds of heaven?

It is no mere historical pageant or theatrical fiction in which we take part. Our thoughts are on the future as well as on the past. We are on our way to eternity; here in the world we are travellers, ready to spend a night without sleep, as travellers do, because our attention is directed towards that country to which we are journeying—so immeasurably better than the country through which we are passing. We keep vigil as the Israelites did, prepared for the road, in the guise of pilgrims.


Certain themes constantly recur during the Vigil service, the analogy between Creation and the new Creation, the analogy between the deliverance from Egypt and redemption from sin, the presence of Jesus mystically in the Paschal Candle, sacramentally in the Mass, actually at the Second Coming. Above all there are the themes of Light and Water, very evident [6/7] respectively in the Paschal Candle and at the blessing of the baptismal water, but reappearing constantly, particularly in the four lessons from the Did Testament.


(1) The proceedings start in darkness, the darkness of sin, the darkness of the world into which Christ came. Fire is struck from the flint-stone and blessed. (2) The great Paschal Candle is set in the midst, the symbol of the Saviour who is the Light of the world. A cross is cut in the wax of the candle, and in token. of the fact that He who died on the cross is the same yesterday, and to-day and for ever, the letters alpha and omega are also incised, together with the numerals of the present year of grace. To this cross are affixed the traditional five grains of incense, symbolising the Lord’s five wounds. By his holy and glorious wounds, Christ our Lord guard us and preserve us. Amen. For in His glorified Body He still bears the marks of the wounds.

Then comes the dramatic moment symbolical of the resurrection. The Paschal Candle is lighted, with the words, The light of Christ, who riseth gloriously, drive out alt darkness from each heart and mind, and a prayer of blessing is said. (3) The deacon now raises the Paschal Candle, which leads the triumphal procession into the church; here is Christ Himself coming to illuminate our darkness by His glorious resurrection. He leads the way, and it is to Him that we genuflect when the deacon sings, The light of Christ. Thanks be to God indeed. From the Paschal Candle the celebrant lights his own candle. After the second proclamation the priests present light their candles, and after the third the whole congregation light their candles one by one. Perhaps we shall not be wrong if we think of the way in which Jesus appeared successively to St. Peter, to the apostles, and then to all the disciples. We Christians derive our light from Him, who is the source of light for the whole world. He has harrowed hell, bringing light into the land of darkness. He appeared in Jerusalem, bringing joy to His own, and He went before them into Galilee. Even so as the pillar of fire the Son of God went before the Israelites, marching even then at the head of His people. At first the light seems feeble, [7/8] but it grows and grows till the dark dead building is full of light. “Thou also shalt light my candle: the Lord my God shall make my darkness to be light.” (Psalm XVIII, 28 PB). Truly “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isaiah IX, 2).

(4) Next the deacon sings the praise of this Candle which is Christ’s symbol. The debt of Adam’s transgression has been paid, and the blood of Jesus Christ has saved us. The night is come, wherein when our fathers, the children of Israel, were led forth out of Egypt, thou dividedst the sea, and madest them to pass over on dry land. Yea, the night is come, that with the fiery pillar hath purged away the darkness of our condemnation. The powers of evil had long ago been kept at bay by the blood of the Passover victim, but now Jesus is our Paschal Lamb, and hath taken away the sins of the world. So unrestrained is our joy that we dare even to be glad that Adam fell, in that it led to the coming of such a Saviour, who won redemption at so great a price. In conclusion there comes a prayer for church and state, that all may come from the toils of this world unto their heavenly country. During this Paschal Proclamation the Candle dominates the proceedings from its place of honour in the midst, and as the symbol of Christ henceforward receives repeated ceremonial censings.

We have rejoiced in the redemption won by the Saviour. But that redemption is made available to us through Baptism. Four Old Testament lessons (there used to be twelve) are read, giving final instruction to any who are waiting to be baptised. Both literally and metaphorically they are read in the light of Christ. First, there is the story of Creation, when the Spirit or breath of God moved over the face of the waters, bringing light into the world and creating the first man, Adam. Soon the same Spirit of God will be breathed upon the baptismal water, and the light of Christ will descend into it, in order to effect a new creation, a new birth, to bring forth people who are born anew “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (St. John I, 13).

Secondly, there is the account of the saving of the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea, another foreshadowing of the Church’s sacrament.

[9] The third lesson is from Isaiah. The prophet speaks of the Lord washing away the filth of His people, of Him being a pillar of fire to them by night, and in general of the Church, which is compared to a vineyard. Of this vine we are made branches by Baptism, when we are “grafted into the body of Christ’s church”.

Fourthly, there is a lesson from Deuteronomy which, like the previous Collect, speaks of the need for a constant fight against. evil, lest thorns and briars ruin the vineyard, and Christians desert the way of life which is commanded them. This links up with section 8.

It should be noted that at the end of each reading and canticle, the celebrant sings, Let us pray, and the deacon sings, Let us bow the knee, a challenge to more urgent prayer, at which all kneel in silence for an appreciable time until he gives the signal, Arise, when the celebrant sings a collect putting into liturgical form the silent prayers of the people. This was the general manner of prayer in the primitive church; it survives also in the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday.

More immediate preparation for Baptism is necessary, and (6) the first part of the Litany of the Saints is sung, while water in a vessel is brought into the midst of the choir between the subdeacon with the processional cross on the one side and the Paschal Candle on the other. The saints enjoy the eternal Easter of heaven, and it is fitting that their prayers should be invoked at this point. They who have already overcome must pray for us who are still earth, and especially for any who are now to be baptised.

(7) The blessing of the baptismal water is very full of mystical allusions to the Old Testament. What rich overtones and undertones are given to the rite of Baptism when it is associated with the primal act of God in creation, when His Spirit moved over the waters, and with the flood of Noah, the Church representing the ark of salvation, and with the four rivers which issued from the garden of Eden, and with the water that issued from the rock in the wilderness, as well as with the water used in the miracle of Cana in Galilee, and the water flowing from Christ’s side at His Passion! On the baptismal water the priest solemnly breathes; the powers of evil are bidden to depart, and into it is invoked the power of the Holy Spirit of [9/10] Jesus, symbolised by the threefold lowering of the Paschal Candle into the water. The anointing of the Holy Spirit is represented by the mingling of the holy oils in the sacred water.

In solemn procession the blessed water is now carried down to the font, while the canticle, Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, is sung. The water is poured into the font and the celebrant prays for those to be baptised in it. How fortunate they are! By means of the sacrament they mystically escape from Egypt with the Israelites, they pass through the waters unscathed leaving their sins behind, they emerge to a new life, resolved to follow the pillar of fire which is Christ, their life through. Now at last they too receive lighted candles, in token of their entry into the kingdom of light. Up to this time theirs have been the only unlighted candles amid the whole congregation.

(8) But every Christian needs the reminder that he has died and risen again with Christ, and the celebrant in his white cope issues the challenge. Do ye renounce the devil? Do ye believe in God? and holding our lighted candles we declare that we do, that we will be faithful to our baptismal promises and that we will let our light shine as it should before men. Corporately we renew our allegiance, and are accepted as His children by God and bidden take our place at His banquet. As a further reminder we are sprinkled with the newly blessed water in token of the sacrament.

(9) During the second part of the Litany the Paschal Candle is placed upon the candlestick which it will occupy throughout Eastertide, and the altar is prepared for Mass. It is decked with flowers and the candles are lighted. The sacred ministers go out and assume the Mass vestments.

(10) The Mass is another Passover, a passing of Christ over and among and within His people, this same Christ who will one day come, no longer veiled under the sacramental Bread and Wine, but manifest and glorious on the clouds of heaven. By faith we lay hold here and now on things future and unseen.

The Vigil Mass takes us back to the early Church; it is shorn of many features which later ages have added. Thus it lacks the Preparation, the Creed, the Offertory sentence, the Agnus Dei, the Pax and the Last Gospel. Ringing bells and pealing organ greet the beginning of the Gloria in excelsis, and [10/11] the solemn way in which the joyous cry Alleluia returns to the Mass before the Gospel is noteworthy. There are no attendants with tapers at the Gospel procession, for the Paschal Candle itself is the gospel light. The congregation light their candles for the Gospel, extinguishing them at the end, and lighting them again at the beginning of the Canon. After Holy Communion has been given, a very brief form of Lauds is sung, consisting of Psalm 117 and the Benedictus Dominus, both with antiphons. During the latter the altar is censed, just as it is at the Magnificat at Evensong. With Go forth in peace, alleluia, alleluia, and the blessing, the Christian people are dismissed, thankful for the heritage that is theirs and resolved to labour that the light of Christ may shine throughout the whole nation and the whole world.

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