Easter Vigil in the Holy Night – The Prince of Life Who Died Reigns Immortal

On the holiest and most sacred of nights, Holy Church invites us to believe in the Resurrection of the Lord by means of a beautiful liturgical celebration.

Three days had passed since the Divine Master was unjustly condemned to death. The few followers who remained faithful had taken refuge in the Cenacle, fearing for their own safety. In this climate of failure, fear and consternation, a new day was dawning when their confusion was further increased. Mary Magdalene, one of the women who had remained at the feet of Jesus near the Cross, had hastened to the tomb before daybreak and found it empty.

She returned and reported the alarming news to the Apostles: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (Jn 20:2). Peter and John ran to the tomb and saw the cloths that had enveloped Jesus’ mortal remains lying on the ground. St. John “saw and believed” (Jn 20:8): the Lord had risen!

Living presence of the Saviour in the Liturgy

Two millennia after that event, the Divine Master still remains with us. He gave up His life on the Cross and ascended to Heaven, but He did not depart from this earth. His presence among men endures constantly in various ways, as He had promised: “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).

Christ is present in His Church and, in a special way, in the Sacred Liturgy. The same Jesus who walked through the streets of Palestine “is present in the sacrifice of the Mass […]. By His power He is present in the Sacraments […]. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings.” 1

Easter Vigil at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, 3/4/2010

Therefore, on the most sacred and holiest of nights, Holy Church invites us to believe in the Resurrection of the Lord by means of a very beautiful liturgical celebration, each act of which shows us that “The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.” 2

Understanding the mystagogical meaning of this celebration helps us to relive, in union with the Apostles, the climatic moment of Salvation history which it commemorates, so that our participation in the “mother of all holy vigils” 3—according to the well-known expression of St. Augustine—will contribute to a growth in our knowledge and love of the Resurrected Christ. For, as Pope Benedict XVI affirms, “the Liturgy is not the memory of past events, but is the living presence of the Paschal Mystery of Christ who transcends and unites times and places.” 4

Blessing of the fire and preparation of the Paschal Candle

In keeping with the central and unique importance of the episode of Salvation history that it recalls, this day’s ceremony begins very differently from what is customary. On the eve of Easter Sunday, after sunset, the people gather outside the church, reminding us that the Apostles and the holy women had to leave the Cenacle to verify the Resurrection of the Lord.

The absence of light evokes the supernatural darkness in which the humanity of the Old Testament lived. Only one fire dispels the darkness, recalling that it was through Jesus, the “Light of the world” (Jn 8:12), that the Father gave men grace and established the New Covenant. “The old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17)—the Apostle exclaims.

Approaching it in silence, the priest blesses the new fire, initiating the celebration. He then cuts various symbols into the Paschal Candle, showing it to represent the Resurrected Saviour: the Cross of our Redemption, the “alpha” and the “omega”—first and last letters of the Greek alphabet—and the numerals of the current year, for as Our Lord is the Beginning and End of all things, time is calculated around Him. Five grains of incense are then inserted into the centre and the extremities of the Cross, in memory of the care provided by St. Mary Magdalene and the other holy women to the Saviour’s Sacred Body, by whose five wounds we were healed (cf. Is 53:5).

Obeying the mandate to preach the Gospel to all creatures (cf. Mk 16:15), the small group of the nascent Church transmitted faith in the Resurrection of the Lord to all peoples. Similarly, the new fire is transmitted to the Paschal Candle by means of a small candle lit in the blessed fire, while the celebrant recites: “May the Light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” 5

“Preaching of St. Peter,” by Pedro Serra – Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Spain)

Threefold “Lumen Christi”

Just as the flame of the Candle banishes darkness, the Resurrected Jesus conquers death and opens the gates of eternal happiness to fallen humanity: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). He is the true pillar of fire (cf. Ex 13:21) to guide the New Israel at night through the desert of this land of exile toward the Promised Land. Thus begins the joyous procession into the church, the earthly symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem, which we have inherited.

The procession pauses three times for the Light of Christ to be acclaimed by all, highlighting the mystery of the Blessed Trinity which the Incarnate Son revealed to us. At the first pause, when the deacon sings “Lumen Christi!”, we proclaim the divinity of the Father, manifested by means of His Son: “No one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Mt 11:27). The second pause proclaims the divinity of God the Son, the true Light who came into the word and illuminated all men, making those who received Him sons of God (cf. Jn 1:9, 12). And the third proclaims the divinity of the Paraclete Spirit, sent by Jesus to His disciples, who sanctifies us and leads us to the Truth (cf. Jn 14:16-17, 26).

Finally, the Paschal Candle is placed in the presbytery where the solemn proclamation of the Resurrection of the Lord immediately follows.

Easter Vigil at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary Basilica, 11/4/2009

Solemn proclamation of Easter

In the first centuries of the Church, this proclamation was the duty of the youngest deacon present at the celebration, who improvised, according to the inspiration at the moment, an outpouring of enthusiasm for the Resurrection of the Saviour. Today, this is done through the Easter Proclamation, a beautiful hymn whose lyrics are attributed by some authors to the pen of St. Ambrose or St. Augustine.

This majestic hymn, whose content truly merits meditation, invites us to raise our hearts in contemplation of the beauties of our Redemption and to worthily praise God for the excess of love manifested in giving His Only-Begotten for the salvation of men. It prepares our spirit for one of the principal elements of this vigil, the Liturgy of the Word, which takes on a different form, once again, from that of other celebrations throughout the year. As we “listen with quiet hearts,” 6 we are presented with a magnificent synthesis of Salvation history through nine readings—seven from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament—which show how God “in times past saved His people and in these, the last days, has sent us His Son as our Redeemer.” 7

Christ brings the Old Covenant to fulfilment

Each one of the passages proclaimed from the Old Testament on this night is accompanied by a responsorial psalm, followed by a prayer explaining it in light of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. The prayer following the first reading (Gn 1:1-2;2), for example, emphasizes that the act of Creation is surpassed in grandeur by the fact “that, at the end of the ages, Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed.” 8 And the prayer corresponding to the seventh reading (Ez 36:16-28) underscores that the new and definitive purification of spirits and hearts announced by the Prophet Ezekiel was realized “through Christ, just as by Him they came into being.” 9

“Crossing of the Red Sea,” by Antonio Tempesta – Tours Fine Arts Museum (France)

With this overview of the wonders wrought in the Old Covenant, and how everything was brought to fulfilment in Christ (cf. Mt 5:17), the faithful are prepared to unite their voices with that of the celebrant when, after the seven Old Testament readings, he solemnly intones the “Glory to God in the highest,” in thanksgiving for so many benefits.

At this moment the bells, silent since Holy Thursday, fill the air with their festive peals, while the voices of the choir attest to the joy of the Resurrection of the Lord with their hymn of praise. The whole church reflects the jubilant sentiment: lights are turned on, retables adorned with flowers and lit candles are unveiled, and the hearts of the faithful rejoice.

At the end of the hymn, a new prayer, followed by the reading of the Epistle to the Romans, underscores and summarizes the meaning of the previous rites: entirely renewed by the glory of the Resurrection of the Lord, we should serve Him with all our hearts, for, just as “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again,” we need to consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:9,11).

A word that sums up our joy

If the predominant note of Lent was penance as a preparation for the approaching Easter festivities, now, with the darkness of sin vanquished, men redeemed by the Blood of the Redeemer can intone a new hymn, as Moses and the Israelites did after the passage through the Red Sea: “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (Ex 15:1).

Easter Vigil of 17/4/2012, in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary

During the Easter season, this hymn is summed up by just one meaningful word, which invites us to praise God: “Alleluia!” 10 Omitted for forty days, it returns to the Liturgy at the Easter Vigil, when it is sung three times before the reading of the Gospel. And to more eloquently express the overflowing joy of the entire Church, the celebrant uses a higher tone with each repetition.

However, one detail of the ceremonial offers a counterpoint to the dominant joy: the two candles which, in solemn Masses, accompany the Gospel to the pulpit and remain while the Gospel is read are omitted in the Easter Vigil. The absence of these flames remind us of the disciples’ lack of faith in Jesus’ Resurrection and warn us against the danger of incredulity.

Resurrecting from the dead, He resurrected humanity from the tomb

Intimately related with the Celebration of Light, which opens the Easter Vigil on the Holy Night, is the moment of the Baptismal Liturgy, during which catechumens, after having been duly prepared, are converted into “light” and  “sons of light.” 11 Reborn in the baptismal waters, their birth to supernatural life is thus especially linked to the definitive victory of Christ over death. 12

This third part of the ceremony begins with the Litany of All Saints, through which the Church beseeches the intercession of the blessed inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem on behalf of those to be born to life in Christ. This illustrates the communion between Heaven and earth, fulfilled by the “Mediator of a new covenant” (Heb 12:24) and whose holy Name is, for this reason, invoked at the beginning and end of the hymn.

Proclamation of the Word during the Easter Vigil, 23/4/2011

Following this, the celebrant immerses the Paschal Candle in water, saying: “May the power of the Holy Spirit, O Lord, we pray, come down through Your Son into the fullness of this font.” 13 Thereby, Christ, light of the world and living water, sanctifies the liquid element that will be the material for the Sacrament that opens the door to all the others, just as He did at His Baptism in the River Jordan.

After the Rite of Baptism, the ritual wisely stipulates that all present, uniting themselves with the newly baptized, renew their baptismal promises and receive the aspersion of holy water, so that the remembrance of their own Baptism will fill them with the joy of being Christians and emphasizes the need to always maintain the baptismal robe spotless.

“Resurrecting from the dead, he also resurrected humanity”

The final part of the Easter Vigil comprises the Eucharistic Liturgy, the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of Christ, the spotlesss Lamb, which the Church has interrupted for two days, to wait “at the Lord’s tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on His Passion and Death.” 14 At this moment the neophytes approach the Eucharistic Banquet for the first time, and everyone receives Him who was “taken from the flock, brought to the slaughter, immolated in the afternoon and buried at night. In being crucified, not one of His bones were broken, and in being buried, He experienced no corruption; but resurrecting from the dead, He also resurrected humanity from the depths of the tomb.” 15

An invitation for our Faith

Entering the tomb, St. John “saw and believed” (Jn 20:8). However, happy will also be “those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29).

In these times, in which the omnipresence of sin makes the fine veil that separates us from eternal realities so opaque, the Church invites us to fortify our faith by participating devotedly and actively in the liturgical ceremonies.

Easter Vigil in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, 3/4/2010

Christ resurrected, conquering sin and death. The splendours of the Easter Liturgy assure us that at Our Lord’s side we have nothing to fear. However long the night may seem, and however deep its darkness, Christ triumphs, Christ reigns and Christ rules! 



1 VATICAN COUNCIL II. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n.7.

2 SEQUENCE. Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord. In: Lectionary for Mass, Sundays, Solemnities, Feasts of the Lord and the Saints, Year C. Published by the USCCB. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1999, p.1139.

3 ST. AUGUSTINE. Sermon 219, 1: ML 38, 1088.

4 BENEDICT XVI. General Audience, 3/10/2012.

5 EASTER VIGIL. Solemn Beginning of the Vigil or Lucernarium. In: ROMAN MISSAL. English translation of the 3rd typical edition, approved by the USCCB and confirmed by the Apostolic See. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2011, p.346.

6 EASTER VIGIL. Liturgy of the Word. In: ROMAN MISSAL, op. cit., p.364.

7 Idem, ibidem. p.364

8 EASTER VIGIL. Prayer after the first reading. In ROMAN MISSAL, op. cit., p.365.

9 EASTER VIGIL. Prayer after the seventh reading. In: ROMAN MISSAL, op. cit., p.367.

10 The Hebrew expression הַלְּלוּיָהּ, translated into Greek as ἀλληλούϊα, literally means “Praise the Lord”.

11 Cf. CCC 1216.

12 While it is not obligatory to administer the Sacrament of Baptism during the Easter Vigil, “it is lived fully when the community can present children or adults for the baptismal rebirth” (SUNDAY MISSAL. Missal da Assembleia Cristã. São Paulo: Paulus, 1995, p.345).

13 EASTER VIGIL. Baptismal Liturgy. In: ROMAN MISSAL, op.cit., p.376.

14 CELEBRATION OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD. Rubric of Holy Saturday. In: ROMAN MISSAL, op.cit., p.339.

15 MELITO OF SARDIS. Homily on Easter, n.71.



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