What is an Easter Vigil?

An Easter Vigil is a church service in highly liturgical churches—like Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Reformed, and Eastern Orthodox—that marks Jesus' passage from death to life. The service begins after sundown on Holy Saturday (sometimes beginning at midnight) and ends before daybreak on Easter Sunday. Because it commemorates Jesus' resurrection and is the culmination of the season of Lent, the Easter Vigil is considered the most important service of the liturgical year. These services can vary slightly between denominations, but they all follow the same pattern. The liturgy consists of four parts: the Service of Lights, the Service of the Word, the Service of Baptism, and the Service of Communion. Due to these elements, this service runs much longer than those churches' typical services usually last.

The Easter Vigil begins with the Service of Light where the congregation typically gathers around a fire outside, where a large candle (the Paschal Candle) is lit. This candle represents that Jesus is the light of the world, rising in glory, to scatter the darkness of our hearts and minds. The candle will be lit on each Sunday until Pentecost Sunday. Incense is also lit and the congregation walks in procession behind the incense and Paschal Candle into the darkened church. This procession represents how these Christians now follow the risen Christ like the Israelites followed God as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21–22). The lights of the church are then turned on and the Easter Proclamation (also known as the Exsultet) is announced. This poetic text points to Christ's victory over evil, deliverance from sin, and the joy of reconciliation with God. After this proclamation about salvation, the Service of the Word begins.

During the Service of the Word (also called Lessons), usually seven (but can be as few as three or as many as twelve) passages of Old Testament scripture are read along with two passages of New Testament scripture (one from an epistle and one from a gospel). After each reading, there is also a responsorial psalm (often Psalm 117) where the congregation responds with "Alleluia." This specific response of "Alleluia" is the first time that joyful exclamation is heard since the beginning of Lent. Following these numerous readings is a time of silence before prayers are said. Finally, the homily (or sermon) is preached, which concludes the Service of the Word.

Following the Service of the Word, the Service of Baptism takes place. At this time, adult congregants who want to officially join the church are baptized and confirmed, welcoming them as new members in the congregation. Even if there are no candidates for baptism, the water is blessed and this section of the Vigil remains an integral part of the service.

Following baptism is the Service of Communion (also called Eucharist) when new members partake of the Lord's Supper for the first time along with the other members of the church. After taking communion a solemn blessing is pronounced and the Easter Vigil is finally concluded.

With these ceremonial elements, church-goers have recalled Jesus' resurrection and the effects His death and resurrection can have in the lives of those who place their faith in Him. It is important to remember that while these types of services can be beautiful and full of meaning for many believers, these rites, rituals, and ceremonial traditions do not provide salvation for those who practice them. We are saved by God's grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:1–10; cf. Ephesians 1:3–14; John 3:16–18; 1 Corinthians 5:17–21). Water baptism is an important act of obedience that symbolically displays the reality of salvation; the act of being immersed itself does not accomplish a spiritual reality but rather demonstrates one. Participation in the Lord's Supper is a symbolic memorial and forward-looking act in which we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). Ingesting the elements in itself does not accomplish a spiritual reality but rather demonstrates it physically.

For those who observe Lent, the Easter Vigil is a meaningful conclusion to that solemn season of repentance. This overnight vigil transitions congregants to the joyful season of Eastertide when they continue to celebrate the victory of Jesus' resurrection and the glory of His ascension, culminating in Pentecost when He sent the Holy Spirit to the church. The Easter Vigil marks Jesus' passage from death to life, transitions church-goers from solemn repentance to victorious rejoicing, and can remind all of us of the new life available to us through Jesus' death and resurrection when we commit ourselves fully to His lordship.

Related Truth:

Passion Week - What is it?

Maundy Thursday - What is it?

Good Friday - What is it?

Holy Saturday — What is it?

The Stations of the Cross – What are they? What can we learn from the Scriptural Way of the Cross?

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