Every year about this time, I get asked three questions about the Easter Vigil Mass: Does it really last three hours? Does it count for Easter? Why can’t we have Mass at 5:00 on Saturday as usual?
To begin with the last question first, we cannot have Mass at 5:00pm on Holy Saturday because the service is not supposed to begin until it starts to get dark, usually a few minutes after sunset. The Mass begins with all of us gathered in the garden area for the lighting of the new fire. From the new fire, we light the large Easter candle and then process into church behind the candle, with each member of the congregation lighting a taper candle from the Easter flame. The meaning of this ritual is not complicated. First comes the darkness; then comes the light. After the darkness of Good Friday and the darkness of the tomb, a light appears. And the light of Christ has overcome the darkness of sin and death. This Easter candle is placed in the sanctuary and kept burning throughout the Easter season, and then is lit during the year every time we have a baptism and every time we have a funeral. For it is through baptism that we are officially joined to the victory of Christ over sin and death. Because Easter is late this year, we are actually fudging a little bit on our start time. Sunset is not until 7:35pm on April 19. It has been my experience at a number of parishes, though, that starting this liturgy later than 7:30 discourages many people from coming to what is truly the most magnificent Mass of the year.
Does it really last three hours? Although the Easter Vigil Mass may run in excess of three hours at some churches that employ all the optional readings, it will not last three hours at Assumption. Yes, it will be lengthier than a regular Sunday Mass, but that is because it is not meant to be like a regular Sunday Mass. In addition to the lighting of the new fire, there is the chanting of the Exsultet, several additional scriptures that tell the story of our salvation, the blessing of water, and the celebration of the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and first Eucharist) with the ten adults who have been part of our RCIA process since September. At one time the Easter Vigil included twelve different scripture readings, each proclaimed by the light of the Easter candle at the beginning of every hour during the night. Mass would start at dusk and end with Eucharist at dawn. People would literally keep vigil all night to celebrate the Resurrection at sunrise. If a three hour Mass sounds way too long, how about a twelve hour one?
Does the Easter Vigil count for Easter Mass? Absolutely, it counts for Easter. The reason this question persists is that prior to 1955 the blessing of fire and water and the readings from Hebrew scripture that are part of the Vigil Mass took place in a separate ceremony on Holy Saturday morning. Since this ceremony was on Saturday morning and was not a Mass, it obviously did not count for Easter Mass.
Every year as Holy Week begins, I am hoping that more of our parishioners will choose to participate in the special ceremonies of the Easter Triduum: the Evening Mass on Holy Thursday that recalls the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of the disciples feet, and which ends with a procession with the Blessed Sacrament through the church; the solemn remembrance of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, which offers each of us the opportunity to reverence the cross of Christ who is our salvation; and the unique celebration that is the Easter Vigil Mass, in which we welcome our new Catholics to the faith community. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday really represent one liturgical celebration that encompasses the central mystery of our faith—the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. I know that Thursday and Friday are workdays for most people; but try to make an effort (and perhaps a post-Lenten sacrifice) and attend anyway. Mass on Holy Thursday is at 6:00pm, and the Service of the Passion of our Lord will also be at 6:00pm, with the same ceremony offered in a more expeditious manner at 12:10pm. See you at church!