The Great Vigil of Easter is the most joyous and beautiful liturgy of the Church year. This most ancient of holy days is rich in symbolism, saturated with the word of God, and is the principal celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. Throughout the ages, it has been in this service that countless saints have proclaimed, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”
The climax of the Christian year, the Great Vigil of Easter is a service of transition, bridging the time between Lent and Easter, Passion and Resurrection, great sorrow and resounding joy. The Vigil allows us, like Mary Magdalene, to visit the dark tomb only to find it empty, the light of the world having risen from the dead. It is an elaborate service, rich with scripture, music and ceremony.
The Vigil begins in total darkness, like the darkness of the tomb. The Paschal candle is lighted from the New Fire and carried into the darkened church as The Exsultet, the oldest distinctively Christian melody and an expansive hymn of praise, is sung. The readings from scripture chronicle the history of humankind’s relationship with God, from the creation and the fall to Israel’s deliverance and God’s renewed covenant with his children. These lessons are shortened versions of the final instruction given to the early Church’s catechumen, or candidates for baptism. Following these lessons, the baptismal candidates make their vows and participate in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ in the sacred waters of Baptism. Then, the celebrant says the Great Alleluia. The church is flooded with light, the tomb is empty, death is conquered! The veils of mourning are lifted, bells ring, the organ blasts out its mighty fanfare, and the people proclaim, “Alleluia, the Lord is risen, indeed.” Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ is risen and we are there to celebrate His triumph over the grave. In joy, we sing alleluias for the first time since Shrove Tuesday, rejoicing in the promise of life in Christ and celebrating the change of the course of creation from death to life.