(I am sorry -- this is not the 2009 post. I forgot to copy and paste as a new post when revising it for 2010, and saved a draft of the 2010 version in the 2009 place. It's OK in a way -- the 2010 version is better anyway!)
In the proverbial early church, there was no service at all on the Saturday before Easter Sunday. What they did was a solemn watch, and just before dawn, the catechumens, those who had been instructed in the faith toward conversion, were baptised and confirmed and made their first Communion, rising to a new life at the hour when Jesus rose from the dead.
Over time, a service did develop, and the time moved back from before dawn to the evening before, and eventually to Holy Saturday morning! On top of that, the service, though retained in the Reformation, including Latin texts, fell into disuse amid the Thirty Years War, rationalism and Pietism, which effect continued here in the US.
Ironically, it was a recovery of the Vigil in German Lutheran churches that in turn contributed to the Catholic reform of the Vigil in 1955 by Pope Pius XII, who had been papal nuncio to Germany. The service was then hacked over by the Vatican II novus ordo. Its use has been spreading in American Lutheranism.
Now the Vigil is generally held by everyone who holds it on the evening before Easter. Though the overall order of the service has remained from the earliest times -- something of a watch with various observances, then reception of converts and mass -- this is hardly a recovery of a practice of the "early church". Their idea was not at all a vigil that begins and ends in the night before, any more than it was a Saturday morning service, but rather a service that was timed, for reasons we shall see in a moment, to conclude with the break of day!
So while the service contains some ancient practices, those who hold it as a Saturday morning service or a Saturday evening service are no more restoring themselves to some imagined purity of the "early church" -- it would seem St Paul wrote all those epistles because the early church was not in that great a shape! -- than those who hold no service at all on Saturday stand apart from it.
The Western Easter Vigil has four parts: 1) The Blessing of the Fire, Incense and Paschal Candle; 2) The Reading of the Prophecies; 3) The Blessing of the Baptismal Font, Baptism and Confirmation of Converts, and the Litany of the Saints; 4) the Mass of the Risen Christ.
The first part begins where Good Friday left off, in darkness. Outside the church, the celebrant strikes a fire from flint and ignites coals and blesses five grains of incense. They enter and begin the Lucemarium: at the back of the church the deacon intones "Lumen Christi" or Light of Christ, and the people respond "Deo gratias" or Thanks be to God. They move up the aisle to the middle of the church and do the same. Then they enter the sanctuary and do the same a third time, for each person of the Trinity. Along the way, the people, holding small candles, light them from the candle fire and pass it along, so that at the end, the darkness is gone.
In the sanctuary the deacon then blesses the Paschal Candle itself and places the five grains in it in the form of a cross -- and in modern times, the interior church lights are now turned on -- and the darkness of Good Friday is now dispelled by the light of the risen Christ! The prayer which contains this blessing was not always so but for many centuries has been the "Exsultet".
During this prayer, the most amazing thing is said, before the incense grains are put in the candle. The glory of salvation, the sureness of the Risen Lord, is so great that even the sin which made it necessary is called a happy thing! Wow. O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem -- O happy fault, that merited to have such and so great a Redeemer!
The second part is a series of twelve readings, or prophecies, which are a reader's digest version of the Hebrew Scriptures, outlining the faithfulness of God from Genesis 1 and Creation through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets. Unfortunately, in the modern revisionist liturgies the readings are often cut down from twelve to seven, and sometimes from even that to four, but always include the Passover and crossing the Red Sea.
As if we had something better to do than hear salvation history from start to finish once a year to prepare to celebrate the fulfillment in the Resurrection. As if the Passover and Red Sea passages are essentials and the rest can be skipped. It's all essential -- when the church defined the Bible, did it say while these are the books you can rely on, if it's getting a little long for you, just skip over some of it?
The third part is the blessing of the baptismal font and water, the sprinkling of the people with some of the blessed water in remembrance of their Baptism, and then the Baptism of any new converts, and finally all recite the Litany of the Saints.
The fourth part is the mass of Easter! Purple is now replaced by white vestments, and the celebrant for the first time intones again the prayer "Gloria in excelsis Deo", Glory to God in the highest, as church bells ring out! A mass of great joy continues, culminating in the Eucharist of course, where it all comes to-gether, not only for those who now for the first time receive it, but for all the faithful.
After Maundy Thursday until this moment Communion is not given (exception is made for the dying) but now the promise of Maundy Thursday and the death of Good Friday come to-gether in the Risen Christ who gives us now his Body and Blood as the sure pledge of our salvation!
And the dismissal includes something else we haven't heard through Lent, the Alleluia, or Praise the Lord!
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