Saturday, April 11, 2020

Reimagining Holy Week (5) - Easter Vigil

Because of this year's unique circumstances, this will be the first of my 10 years as pastor that I have not celebrated the Easter Vigil - and probably the first time in over 50 years that I have not experienced the Vigil personally. This enforced distance from the Vigil makes it even easier to reconsider it today. And, of all of Holy Week, it is perhaps the Vigil that is most pastorally problematic and most in need of reimagining.

Many aspects of the traditional Easter Vigil were very ancient, among them its baptismal character, which remained in evidence long after adult baptisms had ceased to be the norm and no one was being baptized anymore at the Vigil. Presumably Gallican in origin, the addition of the blessing of the new fire and the Paschal Candle to the traditional baptismal vigil created a unique combination of elements. The familiar story of Saint Patrick's famous lighting of the Easter fire in Ireland highlights the inherent popular appeal of that particular addition to the vigil.  If the Vigil had continued to be celebrated at night instead of being anticipated on Saturday morning, the fire and the candle could conceivably have made it a more popular event.

But, of course, for most of the second millennium at least, the entire lengthy vigil - fire candle, 12 "prophecies," the blessing of the baptismal water and font, the Litany, and finally the Mass (which concluded with a truncated version of Vespers) all took place early in the morning with next to nobody in attendance. It was to remedy that odd situation that Pius XII's Holy Week reforms were put in place - resulting for at least a brief period of some modest interest in the Vigil on the part of those disposed to attend "extra" Church services. The first Easter Vigil I ever attended - around 1960 or so - was that reformed Vigil. I am sure much of its appeal was its uniqueness, its nocturnal setting, etc. What I remember liking most of all were the Exsultet and the ringing of the bells. Some 60 years later, these remain my favorite parts of the Vigil.

Of course, there were no baptisms at the Vigil back then. The reformed Vigil of the 1950s introduced a totally new element - the renewal of Baptismal Promises - which was, I think, rather well received. While some liturgical scholars deplored this obviously modern intrusion into such an ancient rite, others recognized it as an attempt to retrieve the baptismal significance of the Vigil in a way modern Catholics could experience  as authentic. 

But then came the RCIA, and more and more parishes started celebrating baptisms at the Vigil - so much so that the baptisms have so come to dominate that one might be forgiven for forgetting that the main focus is supposed to be the Resurrection. As attendance at the Vigil has continued to decline, it seems as if most of those present are there because of some connection with those to be initiated or with the process. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Bringing new people into the Church is important - very important. But it means that the Easter Vigil is increasingly like when the Bishop comes for confirmation - a big event at which much of the congregation are there for a special sacramental moment, while most "regular" parishioners are absent. It hardly functions as the parish's celebration of the Resurrection.

That function is, of course, performed by the Easter morning Mass - typically the best attended of the year. The American option to repeat the Renewal of Baptismal Promises on Easter Sunday reflects that reality, allowing all to participate in the most pastorally relevant aspect of the Vigil, which otherwise most would never experience at all.

Historically, the Easter Vigil Mass, while an anticipation of Easter, was not quite the same as Easter. Perhaps the biggest mistake of the 20th-century reforms was to treat the Vigil Mass as an alternative to attending Mass on Easter. (I always encourage those entering the Church at the Vigil to come back again on Easter morning and join in worship with the wider parish community.) 

Since the precedent has already been set that a rite so historic and ancient as the Easter Vigil can be altered at will, maybe it is time to reform it again as an event focused mainly on those to be baptized (those actually there). Let it be celebrated earlier in the evening and sufficiently shorted so as to be less of a burden and more of a joyful experience. 

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