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 in Jesus 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.
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 saw above, to conclude with the break of day!
These days, the Vigil is generally held by everyone who holds it on the evening before Easter. But, while the service contains some ancient practices, holding it as a Saturday evening rather than a pre-dawn service no more restores some imagined purity or practice 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 holding it Saturday morning, or not holding a service at all on Saturday anytime stands apart from such an imagined restoration.
The contrast between leaving the church in darkness and silence after a Seven Last Words Tenebrae with nothing until Easter morning conveys the tomb that is then empty much better than all this modern recasting, of which I served many as a youth in the 1950s and 60s. Nonetheless, here's what the "vigil" service is.
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 this but for many centuries has been the "Exultet".
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! Oddly enough, the version in LSB leaves the most striking part of the Exultet out, which makes as much sense as it would to put the prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor back in.
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. Some places have used a different set number, but whatever the number, it is set. Unfortunately, in the modern revisionist liturgies the readings are often cut down from twelve to seven, and sometimes from even that to four, or from whatever the set number is to less, 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 if it makes the service "too long". 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, which in Lutheran use became "the" Litany, a Litany of the Saints without 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.
This joy of the fourth part, the mass of Easter, which in contemporary observance happens sometime Saturday evening and was supposed to happen with the break of dawn Sunday morning, is just as real and just as present if one celebrates it on Easter morning itself.
For 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, celebrated separately, come to-gether, in the Risen Christ who gives us now his Body and Blood as the sure pledge of our salvation!
This day of the week is called Sunday in English, a Germanic language, which like all Germanic languages took over the names of the days of the week from the Romans, who in turn got it from the Egyptians. They thought there were seven planets, named after Roman gods, namely, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon. Each planet had an hour of the day associated with it, and the one that ruled daybreak each day had the whole day named after it.
Easter happened on dies Solis, the "Day of the Sun" in Latin, which Germanic languages modified to their gods as Sun-day, Sonntag in German, Sunday in English. Other days were also so named, for example Moon Day becoming what is called Monday in English and Montag in German, but in non-Germanic languages more directly descended from Latin, for example in Spanish, lunes, from luna, the word for moon in Latin and then Spanish.
In fact, the joy of these gifts of our Saviour is so great on this morning of that day of the week called Sunday in English that the church celebrates it the morning (not the night before) of every such day of the week throughout the year. Justin "Martyr", in chapter 67 of his Apology (meaning defence) written about 150 AD, gives the earliest reference surviving to this practice of the Christian church.
He called the day by its Roman name, and the practice led to Christians calling it the "Lord's Day", which is why in those more direct descendants of Latin such as again Spanish it is called Domingo, from the Latin dominus for lord.
So this joy in the crucified and risen Saviour who gives us his body and blood in the transformed Passover of the mass of Easter, the sure pledge of our salvation, his testament to us his heirs as the testator who left it to us until our entry into eternal salvation in heaven with God either through death or the end of times, becomes a "little" Easter, a little Pascha or Passover, every week on Sunday!
And the dismissal includes something else we haven't heard through Lent, the Alleluia, or Praise the Lord! So --
PRAISE THE LORD!
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