The Easter Vigil is the central liturgy of the Church’s year. It is a Mass, with the regular elements of liturgy of the Word, which is what I concentrate in in my posts for Sundays and major feast days, and liturgy of the Eucharist — with presentation of the people’s gifts of bread and wine, and themselves; consecration of the bread and wine, making them the Body and Blood of Jesus; and Holy Communion. But at the Easter Vigil, some secondary parts are expanded into major rites, and the readings are more extensive.
Mass usually begins with a procession and introductory rite leading into the liturgy of the Word. At the Easter Vigil this rite is vastly expanded. First, a fire is lit; a large candle, adorned with various symbols of Christ, is lit from the fire; and the candle is carried in procession to a tall stand in the sanctuary. Meanwhile, the people’s candles are lit with candles lit from the Easter candle. The Easter candle represents the risen Christ, and its flame the light he gives to the world. When the clergy and ministers have arrived in the sanctuary, an ancient chant, called “Exsultet” (“Rejoice”) from its opening word in Latin, proclaims the praise of the candle as representing Jesus’ work of our salvation.
Normally, the liturgy of the Word consists of three readings, with a responsorial psalm after the first and an acclamation before the gospel. At the Vigil, there are seven Old Testament readings before the (non-gospel) New Testament reading, acclamation, and gospel. Not all seven O.T. readings are required to be read, but Exodus 14:15-15:1, which tells of the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, is required. Not only does, it remind us of Passover, with the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb (a type of Christ), which immediately preceded the Exodus, but it also foreshadows baptism, which liberates us from slavery to sin by our passage through the water.
The first reading is the account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2-2. God creates the universe and it is very good. In Jesus, God recreates humanity, making it very, very good, and ultimately he will recreate the universe — a new heavens and new earth promised in Revelation.
Second is Genesis 22:1-18, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. At the end, God stops Abraham from killing his son, but God did not spare his own son in order to reconcile humanity to himself.Third is the reading from Exodus.
Next is Isaiah 54:5-13, in which God presents himself as the redeemer of Israel, promising reconciliation, “enduring love,” glory, and peace. We see Jesus as the one who brings these about, beginning in time, and fulfilled in eternity.
The fifth reading is also from Isaiah — 55:1-11. There is a promise of abundance. Gentiles will come to the Lord. God is forgiving, and his word — Jesus, in our understanding — sent to the earth, will accomplish his mission.
The sixth reading is Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4. God, the creator of the stars that rejoice before him, calls Israel back to his wisdom, his peace, which we understand are in Jesus.
Seventh is Ezekiel 35:16-17a, 16-28. Our sinfulness has caused our exile among the nations. For the sake of his own glory God will bring us back to the promised land. He will cleanse us of our sins by sprinkling clean water (baptism) on us and putting his spirit in us, enabling us to live according to his will.
In an ordinary Mass, the first reading is followed by a psalm, and then the second reading. In the Vigil, each of these readings has its psalm, but then there is a prayer recited by the priest before the next reading. It alludes to the preceding reading, asking God to deal kindly with us as indicated by the reading.
When the Old Testament readings, with their psalms and prayers are completed, the hymn “Glory to God in the Highest” is sung. This usually concludes the entrance rite, before the liturgy of the Word, so we might expect it to be placed before the first reading, rather than in the middle of the liturgy of the word. I suspect the reason for its current placement is that when Pope Pius XII revised the Vigil into its current form, Sunday Mass had only two readings, epistle and gospel. The Gloria came immediately before the first of the two readings, so the idea was that epistle and gospel were a separate unit and the Gloria should precede them. The Old Testament readings were probably seen as separate, not part of a continuum with the final two readings. At any rate the Gloria is sung, and then the prayer which would normally follow it to conclude the opening rite is said.
The epistle — Romans 6:3-11 — tells us that our baptism is a baptism into the death of Jesus, bringing us newness of life in union with his resurrection. Our baptism is thus also a death to sin.
The gospel this year, Year A, is Matthew’s account of the resurrection — Matthew 28:1-10. As the women approach Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning, there is an earthquake and an angel rolls the stone from to stone covering the entrance to the tomb. The angel tells the women that Jesus has risen. They are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to meet Jesus. On their way, the women see Jesus, who gives them the same message for the disciples.
It was only this time hearing that gospel that I realized that Matthew implies that Jesus had already risen before the angel rolled back the stone. Possibly the earthquake was the moment he rose and left the tomb, or possible it had happened earlier, but in any case, Jesus (unlike Lazarus) doesn’t have to wait for the stone to be removed before he can leave the tomb. Just as he can enter the upper room through locked doors, in his glorified body, he leaves the tomb while it is still sealed.
Another point that occurs to me is that the reason for the angel’s message is that it prepares the women for encountering Jesus himself. Without that preparation, they would have been overwhelmed by meeting the resurrected Jesus, but ow they could accept it.
It may be expected that the liturgy would focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The heavy additional emphasis on baptism in this liturgy is because in ancient times, the Easter Vigil was the occasion on which people were baptized. This leads to the next difference from normal Sunday Masses. In place of the recitation of the Nicene Creed, which normally follows the gospel, there is a blessing of water for baptisms (or for sprinkling the people if there are no baptisms). Adults are then baptized, and then the people renew their baptismal renunciation of sin and profession of faith, following which they are sprinkled with the water, in commemoration and renewal of their own baptism.
After this, the Mass continues as usual.