Easter Vigil, also called the Paschal Vigil or the Great Vigil of Easter, is a liturgy held in traditional Christian churches as the first official celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. Historically, it is during this liturgy that people are baptized and that adult catechumens are received into full communion with the Church. It is held in the hours of darkness between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Day – most commonly in the evening of Holy Saturday or midnight – and is the first celebration of Easter, days traditionally being considered to begin at sunset.
Among liturgical Western Christian churches including the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Churches, the Reformed Churches, the Anglican Communion and the Methodist Churches, the Easter Vigil is the most important liturgy of public worship and Mass of the liturgical year, marked by the first use since the beginning of Lent of the exclamatory "Alleluia", a distinctive feature of the Easter season.
In the Moravian Church, the sunrise service starts before dawn on Easter Sunday. In Eastern Orthodox churches, Oriental Orthodox churches, and other traditions of Eastern Christianity, the extremely festive ceremonies and Divine Liturgy which are celebrated during the Easter Vigil are unique to that night and are the most elaborate and important of the liturgical year.
The original twelve Old Testament readings for the Easter Vigil survive in an ancient manuscript belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Armenian Easter Vigil also preserves what is believed to be the original length of the traditional gospel reading of the Easter Vigil, i.e., from the Last Supper account to the end of the Gospel according to Matthew. In the earliest Jerusalem usage the vigil began with Psalm 117  sung with the response, "This is the day which the Lord has made." Then followed twelve Old Testament readings, all but the last being followed by a prayer with kneeling.
(1) Genesis 1:1--3:24 (the story of creation); (2) Genesis 22:1-18 (the binding of Isaac); (3) Exodus 12:1-24 (the Passover charter narrative); (4) Jonah 1:1--4:11 (the story of Jonah); (5) Exodus 14:24--15:21 (crossing of the Red Sea); (6) Isaiah 60:1-13 (the promise to Jerusalem); (7) Job 38:2-28 (the Lord's answer to Job); (8) 2 Kings 2:1-22 (the assumption of Elijah); (9) Jeremiah 31:31-34 (the New Covenant); (10) Joshua 1:1-9 (entry into the Promised Land); (11) Ezekiel 37:1-14 (the valley of dry bones); (12) Daniel 3:1-29 (the story of the three youths).
The twelfth reading leads into the Song of the Three Children and is not followed by a prayer with kneeling, but is immediately followed by the prokeimenon of the Eucharistic liturgy. Thomas Talley stresses the importance of this series of reading as representing the oldest known series and the one evidently having the very greatest influence on the development of all subsequent series of readings.
According to Byzantine historian Andrew Ekonomou, the Easter Vespers was unknown in Rome prior to its introduction in the mid-7th century, and solemnization by Pope Vitalian during the period when Rome was part of the Byzantine Empire. The Paschal vespers was long celebrated in Constantinople prior to this and the liturgy itself has details that appear eastern in origin.
The Roman Missal states: "Of this night’s Vigil, which is the greatest and most noble of all solemnities, there is to be only one celebration in each church. It is arranged, moreover, in such a way that after the Lucernarium and the "Exsultet", The Easter Proclamation (which constitutes the first part of this Vigil), Holy Church meditates on the wonders the Lord God has done for his people from the beginning, trusting in his word and promise (the second part, that is, the Liturgy of the Word) until, as day approaches, with new members reborn in Baptism (the third part), the Church is called to the table the Lord has prepared for his people, the memorial of his Death and Resurrection until he comes again (the fourth part)."
In the Roman Rite liturgy, the Easter Vigil consists of five parts:
The vigil begins between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday outside the church, where an Easter fire is kindled and the Paschal candle is blessed and then lit. This Paschal candle will be used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary of the church or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at baptisms and funerals, reminding all that Christ is "light and life".
Once the candle has been lit, it is carried by a deacon through the nave of the church, itself in complete darkness, stopping three times to chant the acclamation 'Light of Christ' (Lumen Christi), to which the assembly responds 'Thanks be to God' or 'Deo Gratias'. As the candle proceeds through the church, the small candles held by those present are gradually lit from the Paschal candle. As this symbolic "Light of Christ" spreads, darkness is decreased.
The deacon, priest, or a cantor now chants the Exsultet (also called the "Easter Proclamation" or "Paschal Praeconium"), after which the people sit for the Liturgy of the Word.
Once the paschal candle has been placed on its stand in the sanctuary, the lights in the church are switched on and the congregation extinguish their candles (although in some churches, the custom is to continue the liturgy by candlelight or without any lights until the Gloria).
The Liturgy of the Word consists of seven readings from the Old Testament (i.e., 1. Genesis 1:1-2:2; 2. Genesis 22:1-18; 3. Exodus 14:15-15:1; 4. Isaiah 54:4a.5-14; 5. Isaiah 55:1-11; 6. Baruch 3:9-15.32-4:4; 7. Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18–28), although it is permitted to reduce this number for pastoral reasons to at least three, or for very pressing pastoral reasons two. The account of the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea may never be omitted, since this event is at the centre of the Jewish Passover, of which Christians believe Christ's death and resurrection is the fulfillment. Each reading is followed by a psalm or biblical canticle (i.e., Psalm 10, Exodus 15:1-18, Psalm 30, Isaiah 12:2-6, Psalm 19, Psalm 42 & 43) sung responsorially and by a prayer that relates what has been read in the Old Testament to the mystery of Christ. After these readings conclude, the altar candles are lit and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is sung for the first time since before Lent (with the exception of Holy Thursday, as well as any solemnities or feasts that occurred during Lent), and the church bells and the organ, silent since that point on Holy Thursday, are sounded again - although it is customary in some churches to have no organ playing during Lent at all, except when accompanying hymns. (In some regions, the statues, which have been covered during Passiontide, are unveiled at this time.) The collect is sung or recited. The reading from the Epistle to the Romans (Romans 6:3-11) is proclaimed, followed by the chanting of Psalm 118. The Alleluia is sung for the first time since before Lent and with special solemnity. The Gospel of the Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8 or Luke 24:1-12) follows, along with a homily.
After the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, the water of the baptismal font is solemnly blessed, and any catechumens and candidates for full communion are initiated into the church by baptism or confirmation. After the celebration of these sacraments of initiation, the congregation renews their baptismal vows and receive the sprinkling of baptismal water. The prayer of the faithful (of whom the newly baptised are now part) follow.
After the prayers, the Liturgy of the Eucharist continues as usual. This is the first Mass of Easter Day. During the Eucharist, the newly baptized receive Holy Communion for the first time. According to the rubrics of the Missal, the Eucharist should finish before dawn.
The 20th century saw two major revisions of the Roman-Rite Easter Vigil liturgy. The first occurred in the 1950s under Pope Pius XII. Previously, the Vigil liturgy was held on Holy Saturday morning. Outside the church the Easter fire was lit and blessed, and five grains of incense were also blessed. All lamps and candles within the church were quenched, so as to be relit later with the new fire. (The rubrics did not envisage electricity or gas lighting.) At the church entrance, in the centre of the church, and then at the altar, each of the candles on a triple candlestick was in turn lit from a candle that had been lit from the new fire, and on each occasion this was followed by a genuflection and the chanting of "Lumen Christi". During the singing of the Exsultet, which then followed, the five grains of incense were placed in the paschal candle and the paschal candle was lit from one of the candles on the triple candlestick. The Liturgy of the word consisted of twelve readings, for the most part without responsory chants: the seven mentioned above except the fourth and seventh, plus the account of the Flood (Gen 5–8) as the second; followed by a different one from Ezekiel (37:1-14), plus Isaiah 4:1-6, Exodus 12:1-11 (the introduction of the Paschal rites, also read then on Good Friday but now on Holy Thursday), Jonah 3:1-10, Deuteronomy 31:22-30, Daniel 3:1-24. The prayers after the readings were preceded by Flectamus genua and a genuflection, except for the last. After the Old Testament readings the baptismal font was blessed, and the conferral of baptism was envisaged, though rarely performed. The Litany of the Saints followed. Violet vestments were worn except for the deacon (or the priest performing the deacon's functions) who wore a white dalmatic in the procession and at the Exsultet. The priest, unless acting as deacon, wore a violet cope. After this, white Mass vestments were put on, and Mass followed. The Mass was in the then normal form (including the prayers at the foot of the altar), but without Introit, Agnus Dei, Postcommunion and Last Gospel. Its Epistle was Colossians 3:1-4, and the Gospel Matthew 28:1-7. Mass was followed immediately by abbreviated Vespers.
Pope Pius XII changed the hour of the celebration to after sunset. He separated the blessing and lighting of the Candle from the Exsultet to the beginning, the present position. The triple candlestick was no longer used. It was from the Paschal candle that, at the chanting of "Lumen Christi" (without genuflection) the priest would light his own candle at the Paschal candle; for the second, the rest of the clergy plus altar servers would, and for the third, the entire congregation. The Exsultet's function was turned (without change in the text) into a jubilant praise of the Paschal candle already blessed and lit. Of the Old Testament readings, only four were kept: what had been the first (story of Creation - now still the first), the fourth (Red Sea - now the third), the eighth (second from Isaiah) and the eleventh (Deuteronomy). Then followed the first part of the Litany of the Saints (only the names of the saints), the blessing of the font, possible baptisms, renewal of baptismal promises (a novelty with respect to the past and the first inclusion of the vernacular language in the general Roman liturgy), and the second part of the litany. After this came Mass (without prayers at the foot of the altar), followed by Easter lauds (no longer Holy Saturday Vespers). In virtue of the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, this form may, under certain conditions, still be used because of its inclusion in the 1962 Roman Missal of Pope John XXIII.
The Easter Vigil, like the Christmas Vigil, remained a popular festive worship service in the Lutheran churches during and after the Reformation. It was often celebrated in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday. As in all Lutheran services of this period, vernacular language was used in combination with traditional liturgical texts in Latin (such as the Exsultet). Elements which were considered unbiblical and superstitious were eliminated, such as the blessing of the new fire, the consecration of the candles or of water. Emphasis was placed on the scriptural readings, congregational singing and on the Easter sermon. In Wittenberg the Easter Gospel (Matthew 28. 1 - 10; 16 - 20) was sung in the German language in a tone similar to the tone of the Exsultet - a gospel tone only used for this worship service. The devastation caused by the Thirty Years' War also led to a decline in worship culture in the Lutheran Churches in Germany. The rationalism of the 18th century also brought about a change in worship habits and customs. The liturgical movement that arose in the German Lutheran Churches after World War I rediscovered the Easter Vigil in its reformational form. In an article from 1934 for the Liturgical Conference of Lower Saxony and for the Berneuchen Movement Wilhelm Stählin appealed to fellow Lutherans for an Easter service on early Easter Sunday or on Holy Saturday night using elements from the Missal, the Orthodox tradition and from reformational service orders. An order for the Easter Vigil was published in 1936, and several Lutheran congregations in Hannover observed the Easter Vigil in 1937. Since then the Easter Vigil has experienced a revival in many parishes throughout Germany. This movement within the German Lutheran Churches contributed to a revival and revision of the Roman Catholic order for the Easter Vigil by Pope Pius XII in 1951. The "Agende II" for the Evangelical Lutheran Churches and Parishes in Germany from 1960 gave the "Osternacht" (German for "Easter Vigil") a normative form. The most recent agenda for the Easter Vigil was published by the "Vereinigte Evangelisch-lutherische Kirche" in 2008. The order for the Easter Vigil is comparable to the order of service used by American Lutherans. It is characterized, however, by a number of Gregorian chants, medieval and reformational hymns which have been in use in German worship services for centuries.
In North America the Lutherans, similarly to the Anglicans, have in many places returned to the observance of the Easter Vigil [including the restoration of the blessing of the new fire]. The recent service books of both the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America assume the service as normative.
In the Lutheran Service Book, the Altar Book, the Vigil comprises the Service of Light with the Exsultet; the Service or Readings with up to 12 readings; the Service of Holy Baptism at which candidates may be baptized, the baptized confirmed, and the congregation remember its Baptism into Jesus; the Service of Prayer, featuring an Easter litany; and concluding with the Service of the Sacrament, at which the Holy Eucharist is celebrated.
In the Reformed Church, the Easter Vigil follows the pattern of Service of Light, Service of the Word, Service of Baptism, and Service of Communion. It can either start on the night of Holy Saturday or is held as a sunrise service on Easter Sunday.
Although the Easter Vigil is not universal in the Anglican Communion, its use has become far more common in recent decades. Formerly it was only common in parishes in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, having been abandoned at the Reformation and recovered by the 19th-century Tractarian movement.
The service, as provided for example in the current version of the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (TEC), the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Times and Seasons volume of the Church of England's Common Worship, follows more or less the same form as the Roman Catholic liturgy described above, with some variations in texts and ritual. The four-part structure of the Vigil is retained, though in the TEC rite the service of baptism may follow immediately after the readings from the Old Testament.
The service normally consists of four parts:
Some of the other particular differences from the Roman Catholic observance include:
Confirmations occur only when the bishop is present, because, in the Anglican tradition, only a bishop may administer confirmation.
In Methodism, the Easter Vigil is the first service of Eastertide. The liturgy contained in The United Methodist Book of Worship divides the Easter Vigil into four parts:
The Service of Light begins in silence outside of the church building in the nighttime and there, a new fire is kindled and each member of the congregation is given a candle; a greeting, opening prayer and lighting of the Paschal Candle from the new fire then solemnly occurs. The clergy and congregation receive the new light from the Paschal candle and then take part in a procession into the church, as a hymn is sung. The Easter Proclamation is then chanted by a deacon (if there is no deacon, a concelebraing minister does the task and if there is no concelebrating minister, it is entrusted to a lay cantor). The Service of the Word contains readings explicating the following topics: "The Creation", "The Covenant between God and the Earth", "Abraham's Trust in God", "Israel's Deliverance at the Red Sea", "Salvation Offered Freely to All", "A New Heart and a New Spirit", "New Life for God's People", and "Buried and Raised with Christ in Baptism". After each reading, a canticle is sung and then a prayer is offered. Following the hearing of the "record of God's saving deeds in history", the Gospel lesson is proclaimed by the minister and then he/she gives the sermon. The Service of the Baptismal Covenant follows with the baptism of catechumens and then their confirmation, as well as that of those who are being received into the United Methodist Church. The Service of the Table includes the celebration of Holy Communion, which is concluded by a benediction and recessional hymn.
In popular culture and for most believers, the Paschal vigil is the liturgy that commences at midnight; however, the vigil proper commences with vespers Saturday afternoon.
Commencing two hours before sundown according to the written rubrics, although generally in the late morning in actual practice, is great vespers with the Divine Liturgy. It is during this liturgy that catechumens are baptized and that fact, together with the lengthy Old Testament readings, shows that this liturgy is analogous to the Easter vigil described in the previous sections, seemingly representing development from a common tradition.
The Old Testament readings are:
1. Genesis 1:1-13; 2. Isaiah 60:1-16; 3. Exodus 12:1-11; 4. Jonah 1:1-4:11; 5. Joshua 5:10-15; 6. Exodus 13:20-15:19; 7. Zephaniah 3:8-15; 8. 3 Kings 17:8-24; 9. Isaiah 61:10-62:5; 10. Genesis 22:1-18; 11. Isaiah 61:1-9; 12. 4 Kings 4:8-37; 13. Isaiah 63:11-64:5; 14. Jeremiah 31:31-34; 15. Daniel 3:1-68.
It is during these readings that catechumens may be baptized and chrismated, the order of which is given in the Book of Needs (Ευχολόγιον; Требникъ) and is performed while most of the faithful and clergy remain in the church for the readings, the newly baptised being led back into the church during the singing of "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (sung in place of the Trisagion).
This liturgy recounts the Harrowing of Hell, at which time, according to Orthodox theology, the righteous dead were raised from Hades and entered into Paradise. This Good News of Christ's triumph over death, the Church teaches, was at that time revealed only to the departed. The revelation to the living occurred when his tomb was found empty "very early in the morning, on the first day of the week" (Mark 16:2) and this vigil recounts that discovery of the empty tomb. Also commemorated is the Passover of the Law, which according to the Gospel of John, was on the Sabbath when Christ lay in the tomb, and among the Old Testament readings is the story of the Exodus out of Egypt, that reading ending with the antiphonal singing of the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:1–19).
Although this vespers liturgy begins Sunday in the usual manner, including the resurrectional stichera of the first tone, the feast of Pascha begins in the middle of the night, at the time Christ rose from the dead, while the text of and rubrics for Saturday's liturgy are found in the Triodion, the Lenten liturgical book.
Before the Gospel reading, in place of the "Alleluia" sung at every other Liturgy of the year, is a prokeimenon during which, in the Russian tradition, all vestments and decorations of the church are quickly and dramatically changed from black to white. Another feature unique to this Liturgy is that the usual Cherubic Hymn is replaced by that from the Liturgy of St. James, "Let all mortal flesh keep silence".
In Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch receives the Holy Fire and subsequently celebrates the Divine Liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre (i.e., empty tomb) of Christ on the very place where his body lay at the time of his Resurrection.
At the closing of this vespers/liturgy is a modified artoklasia at which bread, wine, and dates or figs are blessed and partaken of by the faithful as sustenance for the remainder of the fast. Thereafter is prescribed the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, which Saint John Chrysostom stated was the best proof of the Resurrection, and which is prescribed as the reading between vespers and matins at Sunday vigils for all of the fifty days of Pentecost. In ancient times, the faithful would remain in the church throughout the night and thus the Paschal Vigil would have actually begun on the afternoon of Saturday and not ended until towards dawn on Sunday morning. In contemporary practice, however, there is typically a gap of some hours before this reading commences.
The order of the Paschal Vigil is as follows (with some minor local variations):
The liturgy typically finishes at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. There is no prescribed liturgy on Sunday morning, everything for the feast having been celebrated during the Vigil. On Sunday afternoon there is a special, Paschal Vespers, at which the Gospel (John 20:19–25) is chanted in many languages (called "Vespers of Love" in some traditions).
The week that begins on the Sunday of Pascha is called Bright Week, and is considered to be one continuous day. The Holy Doors of the iconostasis is left open from the moment they were opened at midnight throughout all of Bright Week, being closed only at the end of the Ninth Hour on Bright Saturday. Most of the unique features of the Paschal liturgies continue through the week and following the Liturgy there is a festive procession around the outside of the church every day and the entire week is a fast-free period, even on Wednesday and Friday, which are normally fast days throughout the year.
In the Indian Orthodox Church the vigil begins in the evening after the liturgy on Good Friday. The faithful spend time in the church reading from the scriptures and singing hymns.
The church celebrates this most important festival in the church calendar, as per the Gregorian Calendar.
Traditionally, the principal liturgy which corresponds to the Easter Vigil in Eastern and Western rites would be conducted in the early hours of the morning, typically at around 3 a.m. on Sunday. In many cities, however, the liturgy is conducted after 6:00 p.m. on Saturday; this is also the case for practical reasons in former Christian lands of the Oriental Orthodox rite which now have Muslim majorities.
Easter marks the change in the set of prayers said and sung before the Eucharist. From Easter to the Feast of the Cross on September 14, the prayers follow the Liturgy of Easter.
Traditionally the Prayers of the Night and Midnight Hours are said. Then follows the most dramatic moment in the liturgy, the Announcement, when all the lights in the church are extinguished other than from the Altar candles and those held by those serving at the altar. The veil separating the sanctuary from the congregation is drawn aside. The chief celebrant stands in the centre of the sanctuary, holding a cross covered in a red embroidered cloth. This is the cross which has been used in the Good Friday liturgy for the procession commemorating the Carrying of the Cross to Calvary and then ritually embalmed and buried in a small coffin-shaped box behind the altar, to commemorate the Burial. The chief celebrant is flanked by the altar-servers, holding candles and hand-bells. In a loud voice, the chief celebrant announces to the congregation, “Dearly beloved, I bring you all news of great joy. Our Lord Jesus Christ has resurrected from the dead and defeated His enemies.” Amid the ringing of the hand-bells and church-bells, the congregation responds, "Truly, we believe that He rises!” This is done three times.
The Easter Procession follows, in which the entire congregation, holding lighted candles, participates with the celebrants and the altar servers. The cross, covered in the red veil, used in the Announcement, is carried in procession around the church. The hymn sung during the procession describes Christ's answer to Mary Magdalene when she sees him at the tomb and mistakes him for the gardener:
O Mary! I am the Gardener truly,
I am the One, Who established Paradise.
I am the One Who was killed,
I am the One Who entered the grave.
Touch Me not, for I have not ascended to the Father.
That I have gloriously risen from that grave,
give thou this good news to the disciples.
Following this, the chief celebrant "celebrates" the Cross, by blessing the four directions while the Trisagion is said. The chief celebrant gives the Kiss of Peace, commemorating Christ's wishing peace on the Apostles. This is passed on to the congregation. On this day alone the Kiss of Peace is given twice. Prayers of the Morning hours follow, and the Holy Qurbana is then conducted as usual. Since Easter also marks the end of the Great 50-day Lent the Service of Reconciliation (Shubhkono) is also held on this day. Special prayers are said.
At the end of the liturgy, instead of the normal touching by the Chief Celebrant's hand of the foreheads of each member of the congregation in blessing, the Easter Cross is used.
From Easter to the Feast of Ascension, the Easter Cross is moved from the centre of the church to a stand inside the sanctuary. This stand, called Golgotha, is itself shaped as a large cross. The Easter Cross is set on its head, and the whole structure looks like a Patriarchal Cross. It had been set up in mid-Lent in the centre of the church and the faithful would kiss the cloth covering it while entering and leaving the church.
The Easter Vigil, also referred to as the Paschal Vigil or the First Service of Easter, is held either on the Saturday evening before Easter or very early Easter morning.