Holy Saturday and the Night That Sets Christian Believers Apart

COMMENTARY: The Easter vigil is a 17-course banquet of the most important lessons God has taught in the history of salvation.

People light candles as they celebrate the Holy Saturday Easter vigil in the Catholic Church of St. Mary of Snows in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Easter Eve, April 20, 2019.
People light candles as they celebrate the Holy Saturday Easter vigil in the Catholic Church of St. Mary of Snows in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Easter Eve, April 20, 2019. (photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP via Getty Images)

The Easter vigil is by far the most important and beautiful Mass of the entire year. It’s the Mass that contains the Church’s greatest promises. It’s the Mass that impels us to maximize our liturgical love and gratitude to God in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and what it means. 

Yet it’s also a Mass that many Catholics, including those who otherwise take the faith very seriously, rarely attend. It’s much longer than other Masses and therefore demands greater spiritual stamina and attention. It can also require greater faith and love, since it’s the antithesis of, and antidote for, the religious minimalism that looks, even on Easter, for the fastest way to fulfill one’s Sunday Mass “obligation.” 

The bold promise of the Easter vigil is made at the very beginning of the ceremony, when the priest, after the Sign of the Cross, says, “Dear brothers and sisters, on this most sacred night in which our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life, the Church calls upon her sons and daughters, scattered throughout the world, to come together to watch and pray.” Those words, “watch and pray,” are exactly what Jesus told Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane would help to strengthen his frail flesh to align with his willing spirit. 

As we gather to keep that contemplative vigil, the priest for the Church makes an astounding guarantee: “If we keep the memorial of the Lord’s paschal solemnity in this way, listening to his word and celebrating his mysteries, then we shall have the sure hope of sharing his triumph over death and living with him in God.”

The Church gives us an assurance that she makes in no other liturgy throughout the year, promising that if we learn how to celebrate and live the Easter vigil, then we will share, in this life and forever, Jesus’ victory over sin and death and abide in communion with him in the heart of the Trinity. 

Because the Easter vigil synthesizes the entire Christian faith, if we develop the spirituality of the Easter vigil and make our life a living celebration of its mysteries, we’re promised the most important gifts of all in this world — and forever. 

If this is what the Easter vigil promises, how could we not attend with eagerness? 

The Easter vigil is broken down into four parts, and each has great lessons for us of the mysteries we’re called to celebrate. 


Liturgy of Light

The first part is the Lucernarium, the “Liturgy of Light,” in which we bless the Easter fire, prepare the Paschal candle and with it chant the Easter Proclamation. The fire is a reminder for us of how the celebration of Easter is to help us “be so inflamed with heavenly desires that with minds made pure we may attain festivities of unending splendor.” Lighting the candle from it, we beg that “the light of Christ rising in glory [will] dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” 

As we enter the Church, we proclaim that Christ is the Light, have our candles lit from the Easter candle (symbolizing being illuminated by Christ) and then light the candles of those around us, an image of the transmission of the faith. Then the deacon, or a priest, chants the Exsultet, the exultation of the Church for the light of Christ’s resurrection. We beg for the grace to have the church building “shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the people.” 

And then we describe what makes the Easter vigil different from every other. 

“This is the night that, even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart.” 

The Easter vigil, in other words, is what makes Christians Christian. If we live the spirituality of the Easter vigil, it proclaims, it separates us “from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading [us] to grace and joining [us] to [God’s] holy ones.” It has a “sanctifying power” that makes us holy by dispelling wickedness, washing faults away, restoring innocence to the fallen, giving joy and the hope of resurrection to those mourning the loss of loved ones, driving out hatred, fostering peace, humbling the mighty and wedding heaven to earth and the divine to the human. We pray that the light of the Easter candle, the light of Jesus risen from the dead that illumines us like the candles in our hands symbolic of our vigilant faith, “may persevere undimmed,” and be found by Christ still burning brightly when he returns as Bridegroom. It’s the spirituality of the wise bridesmaids that Jesus describes in Matthew 25. 


Liturgy of the Word

The second part of the Easter vigil is Liturgy of the Word, which is the most striking thing that distinguishes the Easter vigil from every other Mass. Instead of one Old Testament reading and one Psalm, there are seven and seven respectively, each followed by a special prayer. There is a New Testament reading, another Psalm and the Proclamation of the Gospel. If we are called to live by every word that comes from God’s mouth, and if the Liturgy of the Word on normal Sundays is considered a feast, then the Easter vigil is a 17-course banquet of the most important lessons God has taught in the history of salvation. 

The priest introduces it by praying that we will listen with “quiet hearts” to God’s word, so that, meditating on how “God in times past saved his people and in these, the last days, has sent us his Son as our Redeemer,” he may complete in us “this Paschal work of salvation.” 


Baptismal Liturgy

The third part of the Easter vigil is the Baptismal Liturgy, in which new Christians enter into this history of salvation, previously baptized Christians are received into full communion with the Catholic Church, and all of those who have already been baptized renew the graces, commitment and gratitude for their own baptism. Most of us consider it an honor and a joy to be present at the birth of new family members. How much greater should be our joy at the sacred rebirth of our spiritual brothers and sisters, who are more related to us by Christ’s blood than I am to my identical twin by genes? How impressive it is for new Catholics to experience the joyful welcome of the Church in the presence of their new fellow parishioners! 

As the priest blesses the baptismal water, calling to mind how the waters of creation, the Flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan, and from Christ’s pierced side were all prophecies of the healing, saving waters of baptism, he asks God the Father to send the Holy Spirit into the water to wash us clean from our old life, “so that we may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children through water and the Holy Spirit.” We light our candles anew, just like our baptismal candles were lit at our baptism, and renew our baptismal vows, rejecting Satan, his evil works and empty promises and professing once more our total trust in God, in the Church he founded to continue his saving work, the Communion of Saints interceding for us, the forgiveness of sins that he beckons us to receive and share, and the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting that we’re guaranteed to receive if we “keep the memorial of the Lord’s Paschal mystery in this way.”


Liturgy of the Eucharist

The fourth and last part of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, similar to other Masses but enhanced, because it’s “on this night above all [we] laud [God] yet more gloriously,” pulling out all the stops, “overcome with Paschal joy” at “celebrating the most sacred night of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh.” The Church prepares us, together with our new spiritual siblings across the globe to whom God was “pleased to give the new birth of water and the Holy Spirit, granting them forgiveness of all their sins,” for the most incredible reality in human life: when the Risen Lord Jesus, who left the tomb on Easter morning, enters sacramentally into each of us. 

The Easter vigil is the “most sacred night” in which all of this occurs. 

Mother Church hopes to see you there.