Tonight, the first night of the Jewish holy day of Shavuot (Pentecost), many observant Jews keep the custom of staying up all night studying the Torah, in anticipation, as it were, of the glorious revelation being commemorated tomorrow morning. This practice of keeping an all-night vigil is meant to contrast with the supposed behavior of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, who, according to legend, overslept on that famous morning and needed to be awakened by Moses himself. When morning comes, the vigil ends with the festival day liturgy, at which the Torah portion (Exodus 19-20) is read recalling the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. (Many stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments to emphasize their special significance.) In Jewish tradition, God's giving of his Law to his Chosen People is imagined as mystical marriage between God and Israel, his bride, and thus the establishment of a new faithful household.
Corresponding to Shavuot, the Christian Pentecost, which commemorates the giving of the Holy Spirit, when the time for pentecost was fulfilled (Acts 2:1) commemorates the creation of the Church as God's new faithful household on earth, established by the mystical marriage between Christ and his Church, effected by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Wouldn't it be fitting to stay up all night in anticipation of so great a gift?
Historically of course, Pentecost did once upon a time enjoy its own all-night vigil. As at Easter, which it in some sense paralleled, the Pentecost vigil was originally baptismal in orientation. Pope Saint Siricius (384-399) associated this practice with that of the apostles who, after all baptized their first converts on the first Pentecost (Acts 2:42). The traditional Pentecost Vigil, which survived (on Saturday morning) in the Roman Rite until 1955, was essentially a shorter version of the Easter Vigil. It lacked the Gallican rituals of the new fire and candle and had only six Old Testament readings instead of twelve. But it repeated the same blessing of baptismal water, and the Mass which followed the vigil exhibited some fo the same peculiarities as that which followed the Easter Vigil - no Introit, the ringing of the bells at the Gloria, no candles carried at the Gospel. Those peculiarities survived until the promulgation of the Pauline Missal in 1969, but the vigil itself disappeared following the Holy Week reforms of the mid-1950s. Presumably, now that the baptismal water was being blessed in public at a (hopefully) well attended Eater Vigil, it must have seemed superfluous to replace it with new water seven weeks later.
Reflecting the curious ambivalence about tradition that characterizes the Pauline Missal, the new rite allows for an optional Pentecost Vigil on Saturday evening, featuring additional scripture readings but no baptismal elements. Its focus is instead on the coming of the Holy Spirit:
Dear brothers and sisters, we hav enow begun or Pentecost Vigil, after the example of the Apostles and disciples, who with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, persevered in prayer, awaiting the Spirit promised by the Lord; like them, let us, too, listen with quiet hearts to the Word of God. Let us meditate on how many great deeds God in times past did for his people and let us pray that the Hoy Spirit, whom the Father sent as the first fruits for those who believe, may bring to perfection his work in the world.
in a world where hardly anyone attends the Easter Vigil, it would probably be utopian to try to introduce a second lengthy late-night service in the current climate. In fact, in all these hers, I have never seen or heard of this Pentecost Vigil being celebrated anywhere. The culture of anticipated Saturday afternoon/evening Mass (originally intended for those who had to work or had other obligations on Sunday) has become just a quick way to get Sunday Mass over with, a prioritization of consumer convenience over worship, any prolongation of the experience is unlikely to be welcomed or even understood.
That said, the vigil readings about the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), God's manifestation at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:3-8, 16-20), the prophecy of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), and the outpouring of God's Spirit (Joel 3:1-5) might be just what we need to hear at this critical juncture in church and human history. And reading them needn't keep anyone up all night!
Image: Illustration for Pentecost Sunday, Roman Missal (NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 2011).
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