The brief liturgical season known as the Sacred Paschal Triduum of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord “celebrates the Paschal Mystery and so is the culmination of the entire Liturgical Year” (Rev. Jovian P. Lang, OFM, Dictionary of the Liturgy (1989), p. 566). Beginning with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Sacred Paschal Triduum (Sacrum Triduum Paschale), also called the Easter Triduum, continued with the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday.
The following day, Holy Saturday, is a day of prayer and fasting, with the austerity of Lent and Holy Week reaching the point of emptiness and desolation, as the Church waits at the tomb of Christ Jesus, recalling how “He descended into hell” (Apostles’ Creed). In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church reads from an anonymous ancient homily for Holy Saturday:
“Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear…”
Traditionally, the fasting and abstinence that was required on Good Friday is continued on Holy Saturday until after the Easter Vigil, or if not attending the vigil, until the morning of Easter Sunday.
On the evening of Holy Saturday, the third and final day of the Sacred Paschal Triduum begins with what is officially called the Vigilia Paschalis in Nocte Sancta (Easter Vigil in the Holy Night).
“This is the high point of the Christian year, the celebration of the Paschal Mystery in the great Easter Eucharist, summit and source of the liturgical action and life of God’s People. This ‘holy night’ is the ‘mother of all holy vigils’ that begins the ‘queen of feasts’. The full meaning of the Easter Vigil is a waiting for the Lord. He who took our human flesh, who suffered and died for us in that flesh, now rises in that same human body, glorified and immortal, as befits the new life of Resurrection. With the joyous ‘alleluias’ of her new Passover, Mother Church celebrates a unique event, at once historical and cosmic. At the broken tomb, the Incarnation reaches its fulfillment, and the ultimate purpose of our Redemption is revealed in the frailty of human flesh—nothing less than a literal sharing in the glory of his bodily Resurrection. For this we were washed by the waters of Baptism; for this we were sealed with the Spirit’s fragrant Chrism; for this we feast on the Body and Blood of the One who leads us on into eternal life” (Bishop Peter J. Elliott, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year (2002), n. 255 / p. 129).
The liturgy of the Easter Vigil is without doubt the longest liturgy of the entire year, but it is also without doubt the richest, the most significant, and most beautiful. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil consists of four distinct parts: (1) the Solemn Beginning of the Vigil or Lucernarium, (2) the Liturgy of the Word, (3) the Baptismal Liturgy, and (4) the Liturgy of the Eucharist
According to The Roman Missal, Third Edition, “by most ancient tradition, this is the night of keeping vigil for the Lord (Ex 12:42), in which, following the Gospel admonition (Lk 12:35-37), the faithful, carrying lighted lamps in their hands, should be like those looking for the Lord when he returns, so that at his coming he may find them awake and have them sit at his table”.
“Of this night’s Vigil, which is the greatest and most noble of all solemnities, there is to be only one celebration in each church. It is arranged, moreover, in such a way that after the Lucernarium and Easter Proclamation (which constitutes the first part of this Vigil), holy Church meditates on the wonders the Lord God has done for his people from the beginning, trusting in his word and promise (the second part, that is, the Liturgy of the Word) until, as day approaches, with new members reborn in Baptism (the third part), the Church is called to the table the Lord has prepared for his people, the memorial of his Death and Resurrection until he comes again (the fourth part).
The “vigil of vigils” begins after nightfall with The Solemn Beginning of the Vigil or Lucernarium (Latin for “service of light”) and includes the blessing of the Easter Fire, the preparation of the Easter or Paschal Candle, and the chanting of the Easter Proclamation or Exultet: “Exsúltet iam angélica turba cælórum… Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven… let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!”
The Liturgy of the Word consists of seven readings from the Old Testament that trace the history of salvation. Each reading is followed by a responsorial psalm and a collect prayer. While these seven readings may be reduced to three for pastoral reasons, the Church highly recommends that “all the readings should be read in order that the character of the Easter Vigil, which demands that it be somewhat prolonged, be respected at all costs” (Circular Letter concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts (1988), n. 85).
After the final reading from the Old Testament, the celebrant solemnly intones the Gloria, during which the church bells are rung and the altar candles are lit, which officially ushers in Easter. The “paschal Mass of the Sunday of the Resurrection” now continues with the Collect, Epistle, and Responsorial Psalm, which includes the triumphant return of the Alleluia, which has been silent since Ash Wednesday (or Septuagesima).
Following the Gospel and Homily, the Baptismal Liturgy begins, which includes the blessing of the baptismal font, the chanting of the Litany of the Saints, the renewal of our own baptism with the renewal of baptismal promises, and the sprinkling of baptismal or Easter water. If the Sacraments of Christian Initiation are to be celebrated, the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are now conferred on the Elect.
Following the General Intercessions, The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins, which is the high point of the Easter Vigil. “In its fullest sense this is the Easter sacrament, celebrating the Paschal Mystery and completing Christian Initiation” (Bishop Peter J. Elliott, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year (2002), n. 306 / p. 151). Immediately after the distribution of Holy Communion, the Blessed Sacrament returns to the tabernacle, which has been empty since Holy Thursday.
Christus resurrexit! Christ is risen!