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Home Op-Ed Entire cities once lit up for Easter celebrations

Entire cities once lit up for Easter celebrations

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Tradition of keeping vigil dates back to early Christianity
by Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo


The feast of the Resurrection of Christ is the greatest and oldest feast of the Christian Church. Its importance is emphasized by the long preparation of Lent and Passiontide, by the special ceremonies of Holy Week, and by the reiteration of Alleluia, the most ancient expression of joy for the Church.

In Exodus 12:11, the Passover describes the passage of the angel on the night of Israel’s deliverance out of Egyptian slavery. The Hebrews had been commanded to slaughter a lamb and sprinkle its blood on their doorposts. The angel then passed over their homes to destroy the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.

In the ancient celebrations, the catechumens, after keeping watch all Saturday night, were baptized early on Easter morning and received Communion. Together with the conviction that by initiation into the Church they too had died and risen and ascended with him, they deepened their assimilation with Christ and the definitive and full union with him and the Father by the celebration of the Eucharist.

The night before Easter was celebrated by the illumination of churches and even whole cities, with the early Christians celebrating Easter as the commemoration par excellence of Christ’s Resurrection.

Holy Saturday has been from earliest times consecrated to our Lord’s Sabbath rest and his burial in the tomb. The early Church in both the East and the West commemorated this burial by spending the day in rest, prayer, and strict fasting in expectation of the Resurrection. There was no Eucharistic liturgy or Communion service of any kind.

Today the Church keeps Holy Saturday in austere and quiet mourning because Christ her bridegroom has been taken away from her and lies in the tomb. The theme of Morning Prayer on this day is the death and burial of Christ, and his descent into the dead.

I like to remember the history of our beloved Mother Church, especially how, in the beginning, the paschal feast was one unitive celebration of the paschal mystery, representing the entire saving work of Christ, including the Passion, Resurrection and the sending of the Spirit.

In a very real sense the feast remains so, for it celebrates the whole achievement of the Paschal Lamb “who by dying destroyed our death and by rising restored our life” (Memorial Acclamation).

St. Augustine calls the paschal vigil “the Mother of all vigils” – the most important vigil or night watch of the whole year.

The altogether special character of this greatest of Church feasts is apparent in the beautiful liturgical ceremonies of the night. All of them express the Christian’s passing over with Christ from the death of sin to the new life under God.

It starts with the blessing of the new fire which takes place outside the church, a formula that originated in Germany in the 10th century. From this new fire the Paschal Candle is ignited, a symbol of the risen Lord and one of the most impressive sacramentals of the Church, evoking the thought of Christ and his victory, the triumph of light over dark-


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ness. Yet, the origin of this symbol is uncertain.

The celebrant heralds the Resurrection with the words Lumen Christi (the Light of Christ) and the community acclaims the risen Lord with the glad cry Deo Gratias (Thanks be to God), sharing the light from the Paschal Candle and signifying that we all participate in the glory of the Resurrection and are bearers of the light, children of the radiant splendor of Christ.

Upon reaching the sanctuary the celebrant sings the beautiful and inspiring hymn Exultet iam angelica turba coelorum (“Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven”). The theme of this hymn is the victory of the King over death, sin, and hell.

The modern version is traditionally attributed to St. Ambrose and sums up the redemptive mystery of our salvation. Listen – “This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin. O love! O charity! To ransom a slave you gave away your Son! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

Then comes the Liturgy of the Word. Nine readings are provided – seven from the Old Testament and two from the New. After the seventh reading the priest intones the hymn “Glory to God in the highest” which is taken up by all, while the bells are rung.

The blessing of the baptismal water and the conferring of the sacraments of initiation follows immediately, together with the renewal of baptismal promises.

The true climax of the Easter Vigil is the celebration of the Eucharist, for the Eucharist is the Paschal mystery in its essence. And all the feelings of sorrow and remorse for sins are transformed in the joy of the redemption with the vibrant and emotional cry that closes the Easter liturgy – which I use to wish you all a happy Easter: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!


Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 April 2017 09:32  

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