Why does our Easter Vigil Mass have to be so late in the evening?
As we draw closer to Easter, I want to speak of the Easter Vigil Mass in the life of the Church while also addressing the question of why it starts at the
scheduled time of 9:30 pm (and not earlier).
In the liturgical year, it is the Sacred Triduum that stands as the high point of the entire liturgical year as the Triduum commemorates the Lord Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. For it is in these mysteries that Christ accomplishes His redeeming work of freeing us from sin and gifting us with a share in His eternal kingdom. This “triduum” contains the three separated, but deeply connected moments of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night after dark on Holy Saturday. In fact, these three moments are so intimately connected that they are kept as one liturgy (and hence this is why the Mass on Holy Thursday and the service on Good Friday do not conclude with a blessing or dismissal and why the service on Good Friday and the Easter Vigil Mass do not begin with a Sign of the Cross and greeting).
To the Easter Vigil itself, the Church’s description of this Mass in the Roman Missal calls it “the greatest and most noble of all solemnities.” For it is at this Mass that the Church meditates on the history of our salvation (as given through the chosen Scriptural passages – of which there are seven Old Testament readings, along with a short passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, culminating in the proclamation of the particular Gospel account of the resurrection for the given year in the lectionary cycle [which this year will be from Matthew]). In addition, at this Mass wherein the Paschal Candle is blessed (that symbolizes Christ, the Light of the World), we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection that destroys the darkness of sin. All who believe in this mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection are invited to share in that light of Christ through baptism (or the renewal of baptism for those who have already received baptism). Finally, our celebration culminates in the participation in the Eucharist as the memorial of these great mysteries given to us by Jesus Himself to celebrate until He returns in glory.
That this Mass is celebrated at such a late hour is simply in relation to the directive that it is to take place “during the night, so that it begins after nightfall and ends before daybreak on Sunday.” Once more, the image of Christ as the true light that overcomes and destroys the darkness is of prime significance. To most fittingly be drawn into this mystery, the Church in her wisdom recognizes that the actual darkness of night gives the most proper setting to witness the light of Christ shining in the
darkness – once more symbolized by the Paschal Candle.
On a practical level, our late start time (9:30 pm this year) is carried out so that we might rightly keep the symbolic meaning of the light shining in darkness. The
Roman Missal’s reference to the vigil not beginning until “after nightfall” suggests that this Mass take place well after sunset when the sky is completely dark. In practice, the U.S. Bishops have suggested that a timeframe of 45 minutes to one full hour after “civil twilight” should be the earliest time for this vigil to begin – that is, at least one hour and 15 minutes to one hour and 30 minutes after sunset. Other sources say it should not begin until after the hour that astronomers call “astronomical twilight,” which is usually about one hour and 45 minutes or more after sunset.
Given the scientific reasons for the late start, might I conclude with this encouragement: that this Mass IS THE CULMINATION OF THE CHURCH’S YEAR and there is no other Mass like it. Of all the Masses every year, no Mass comes close to the importance of this Easter Vigil in its symbolism and celebration of Christ’s saving work accomplished in us. Furthermore, by contrast (and as a real comparison of timeframe), many quite joyfully attend late night Mass on Christmas with no hesitation over the late hour. Thus, I encourage all to come and worship at the Easter Vigil Mass – to celebrate the central moment of our salvation in Jesus Christ and share even now the joy that we await in His return.