A Step-by-Step Guide to the Easter Vigil Mass

The Paschal Vigil is the Great Liturgy in which the whole Paschal Triduum culminates.

A Catholic family holds candles during the Easter Vigil at St. Mary of the Snows in Bratislava, Slovakia, April 20, 2019.
A Catholic family holds candles during the Easter Vigil at St. Mary of the Snows in Bratislava, Slovakia, April 20, 2019. (photo: Joe Klamar / AFP via Getty Images)

If there is ever a liturgy that looks less like a Sunday Mass, it’s the Easter Vigil. At the same time, such a perspective is misleading: the Easter (or Paschal) Vigil is the liturgy of the Church year. It is the most important Eucharistic celebration of the year. Its roots reach back to the Apostolic generation. In the Church’s earliest centuries, it lasted all night until dawn. In fact, in the earliest Church, there were no separate liturgies during the day on Easter Sunday. The Vigil held privilege of place.

This overview of the Vigil is divided into two parts because the Vigil itself is long and complex. The chief components of the Paschal Vigil are the opening Service of Light; an extended Liturgy of the Word; the blessing of water followed by the celebration of the Christian sacraments of initiation, i.e., baptism of catechumens and their confirmation (as well as Christian converts to the Church); and then the Liturgy of the Eucharist. 

A preliminary note: The vigil must begin after sunset. The Church has been increasingly emphatic about this point: vigils are nocturnal watches and so they must begin after dark. They are not “extra-long Saturday night Masses” and should not be scheduled at the same time as a parish’s usual Saturday evening Mass for Sunday. 

In the United States, Easter now always occurs after the resumption of daylight saving time. While individual dioceses will and should set norms, I would argue that in 2024 — with Easter being relatively early — it would be hard to justify beginning the Vigil before 7:45 p.m. at the very earliest in the very northern tier of states and more properly toward 8:00 p.m. or afterward as one moves south. When Easter falls later (and it can occur as late as April 25), the Vigil has to start later because the day is longer. Priests: Don’t just “look up” last year’s schedule.

The Service of Light

The very first rite of the Easter Vigil presupposes darkness. One does not kindle a fire in daylight. The Easter Vigil begins outside the church with the kindling of the Easter fire. The church itself is dark, as dark as that night when Jesus lay in the tomb. In the evening chill — like the chill of the tomb — a light is kindled. It is from that light that the priest will light the Easter or Paschal Candle, which he will bring in solemn procession into the darkened church. Ideally, the congregants should also follow behind the celebrant in procession: this is Israel, led by the column of fire from Egyptian slavery to freedom.

As the priest enters the darkened church with that one candle, he intones on three separate occasions, “Christ, Our Light!” to which we respond, “Thanks be to God.” This night, Christ Our Light is risen from the dead, dispelling the darkness of death and the gloom of the tomb. It is from that one Paschal candle that the ministers distribute the fire to the faithful, each having received his own small candle. As the Paschal Candle makes its way to the altar, the progressive illumination of the church from darkness to light by candlelight is palpable: Christ Our Light has put aside the darkness. 

In the sanctuary, the priest affixes various markings and grains of incense to the Paschal Candle. The candle is a reminder of time, that “all time belongs to” Christ. The Paschal Candle is an important sacramental. It will remain near the altar throughout the liturgical year. It will be lit during Mass in the Easter Season, i.e., through Pentecost. Thereafter, it will be lit at two important occasions. It is always lit during baptism, because we are baptized into Christ’s Death in the hope of resurrection (Romans 6:3-6). That is why we celebrate baptism at the Easter Vigil. The Paschal Candle will also be lit at Christian funerals, again, because our baptism is in the hope of resurrection.

Once the Paschal Candle is in its place in the sanctuary, the priest (or deacon) sings the Exsultet. Its structure is something like the Preface in the Mass. The Exsultet is an ancient hymn, probably from the 400s. It captures the significance and meaning of Easter while reinforcing an awareness of the transcendence of what Christ accomplished: we do not sing “that was the night” that “Christ broke the prison bars of death” but rather “this is the night.” We are part of what began that first Easter and which continues now: “The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”

What happened that first Easter is not just some past and finished historical event. It changed and continues to change all human history until the end of time, one soul at a time. And, unless it happened — unless Christ rose from the dead — as St. Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 15:12-28), Christianity is a fraud. 

This night says it is not.

The lights in the church should now be lit, but there is only one candle burning: the Paschal Candle.

Liturgy of the Word

Unlike the typical Sunday Liturgy of the Word, the Paschal Vigil envisions up to nine readings and requires at least five. Seven of the readings are from the Old Testament, at least three of which (and specifically Exodus 14, the account of the passage through the Red Sea) must be read. One reading is from St. Paul (Romans 6), which makes clear how essential Easter is. The final reading is the Easter Gospel, this year taken from Mark.

Like the First Reading on Sundays (usually from the Old Testament), each of the Old Testament readings in the Easter Vigil has a responsorial psalm. Unlike Sundays, each responsorial psalm concludes with a prayer by the celebrant.

The Church strongly encourages all the readings to be proclaimed. These readings all prefigure aspects of the Resurrection. 

The first reading takes us back to the beginning, to creation, to the first “night” when God brought everything into existence. The second reading takes us to another night, the prefiguring of Christ’s sacrifice in Abraham’s readiness to offer his son, Isaac. The third reading — which must be read — takes us to the night when Israel, with its face to the Red Sea and its back to pursuing Pharoah, passed through those waters, prefiguring baptism. The fourth reading, Isaiah, is God calling estranged man back. The fifth, also from Isaiah, assures God’s promise of an “everlasting covenant” accompanied by “rich fare.” The sixth, Baruch, summons man back to the Lord’s Wisdom. The seventh, from Ezekiel, is the promise of being sprinkled with water and the creation of a new heart in those God returns from exile, including the spiritual exile of sin. 

As my professor, Jesuit Father John Baldovin, once put it, we read those Old Testament texts in the light of the Paschal Candle, i.e., in the light of Christ. Like Christ on the road to Emmaus, the Paschal Candle has illumined the reading of the Old Testament. 

The Paschal Candle is the only candle burning up to now. But, in today’s Liturgy of the Word, there is a profound movement from the Old to the New Testament. In contrast to the order at a typical Mass, at the Easter Vigil the Gloria makes its appearance after the last Old Testament text is read and we prepare to read the New Testament (St. Paul). At that point, the celebrant sings the Gloria because, announcing the Resurrection of Christ that destroyed death and restored life, what else can we say but “Glory to God in the highest!” This is also when all the other candles on the altar should be lit: until now, only the Paschal Candle burns. And, at that moment, the bells in the church break out in raucous peals. They have been silent since before Ash Wednesday, but for a quick expression during the Gloria on Holy Thursday night. Tonight, as we move to the New Covenant, the New Testament, those bells now proclaim what the closing lines of the Easter prefaces will say throughout the next 50 days: “The joy of the Resurrection renews the whole world!”

In the full light of the brightened Church, we read St. Paul and then the Gospel. Indicative of this festive night, the alleluia verse preceding the Gospel is sung not once but three times.

Sacraments of Initiation

These sacramental rites occur normally after the Gospel and homily, as they sometimes do at Sunday Mass, e.g., when baptisms in a parish occur during Sunday Mass (which is where they should take place). The same order is true tonight.

The first sacrament of Easter is baptism, because baptism is a participation in Jesus’ death in the hope of Resurrection. Water cleanses. Water also can kill. Water restores and revives. All those meanings come into play tonight.

But before we baptize, we need water. The Easter Vigil includes a rite for the blessing of holy water. That prayer is very rich, tracing the place of water in the history of salvation:

  • from the primordial chaos at the beginning of the world when “the Spirit hovered over the waters,” to
  • Noah and the flood that came because man’s evil was so great, to 
  • Israel’s passage through the Red Sea to freedom from slavery, to
  • the water that flowed from the rock to sustain Israel, to 
  • Ezekiel’s (Reading 7) promise of God sprinkling clean water on man, to 
  • John’s baptizing (including of Jesus) in Jordan, to 
  • the water that flowed from Christ’s side on the cross …

After the blessing of the water comes baptism. This is the night that catechumens — those who have been preparing for baptism — have been waiting for. Tonight, the Church grows. Tonight, these catechumens become Christians. Any Christians who are converting to Catholicism, i.e., those who have already been baptized, are then also received into the Church. And all these new Catholics are confirmed. All that will remain is their “first Communion” this night.

But baptism is neither a spectator sport nor magic. We are not just watching those about to be baptized, but we will now share a faith and a membership in the Body of Christ with them. And since baptism is a sacrament, these adults must declare their commitment to receive it. They are first asked to declare their baptismal vows and we, who are baptized, are likewise called to join with them in renewing ours. Our baptismal vows have two aspects, like two sides of a coin: we are called upon first to turn from what separates us from God (the devil, evil and its attractiveness) and then to turn to God in faith (professing faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Even if a parish has no catechumens (which should make it ask itself, “why not?”), there will be a renewal of baptismal vows by all participating in the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil always has at least that nexus to baptism.

Liturgy of the Eucharist

Now, we finally reach the Liturgy of the Eucharist as it exists in every Mass. There’s no need to dismiss the catechumens because the catechumens are now neophytes, newly-baptized Christians. The Easter Vigil at this point picks up at what we recognize as the offertory of the Mass, followed by the Eucharistic Prayer and the Communion Rite. Compared to the other parts of the Easter Vigil, its Liturgy of the Eucharist is most similar to Mass as Catholics typically experience it. There are, of course, proper prayers (e.g., for the Prayer over the Gifts, the Preface and the Postcommunion) but that is not fundamentally different from other solemnities. If the celebrant uses the First Eucharistic Prayer (the Roman Canon) there are some Easter-specific phrases added to it. At Communion, the first to be communicated are the newly baptized and those received into the Church.

Concluding Rite

There will be a blessing and dismissal today because this has been the Great Liturgy in which the whole Paschal Triduum culminates. In fact, in the ancient Church, when the Vigil tended to end at dawn, there were no other Masses on Easter Sunday. So, on this greatest of feasts, there is a special, three-part prayer over the people and blessing. The dismissal, too, is solemn: “The Mass is ended, go in peace, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” to which the congregation gives its usual response but also with the triple alleluia attached.

With the end of the Paschal Vigil, the Paschal fast has also ended. The Lord has fed his people with ‘rich fare.”

(As this liturgy also concludes the Paschal fast, I reiterate Gabe Huck’s suggestion of the value of a communal parish “break-fast” after the liturgy).