The Easter Vigil, which takes place Holy Saturday night, “is the greatest and most noble of all solemnities and it is to be unique in every single Church,” the rubrics of the Missale Romanum proclaim.
The word vigil, which means “staying up all night,” takes on a special meaning for the night before Easter because it recalls the holy women who came to the tomb the early hours of Sunday morning.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and another Mary arrive at the tomb at dawn to finish embalming Jesus, but his body isn’t there. An angel tells them, “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He’s not here. He has risen. Tell his disciples to go to Galilee and they will see him there.” (Mt 28:6-7)
The vigil by its very nature takes place no sooner than nightfall Holy Saturday night and must end before daybreak Easter morning.
The vigil begins with the kindling of a “blazing fire” at a suitable place outside the church to gather the faithful around its warmth and beauty and to dispel the darkness of the night.
The celebrant blesses the fire with a prayer and then the Paschal Candle is brought forth and lit from the fire. The candle symbolizes the light of Christ, which “shines in the darkness” which “has not overcome it.” (John1:5)
The Paschal Candle is then processed into the darkened church and the congregation lights their small hand-held candles, starting from the Paschal Candle and then from one another, lighting up the whole church.
At the beginning of the vigil after the Paschal Candle is lit, the Easter Proclamation or Exsultet is said or sung, usually by a deacon, or by a priest or a lay cantor.
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