Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Traditional Vigil of Easter – Part 1: From the Lucernarium to the Prophecies

This is, again, a reposted article, in two parts, from my previous blog, with some minor modifications.  
Last year, I wrote an article (reposted this year) touching on certain aspects of the ancient rite of Palm Sunday, prior to the changes made in 1955 under Pope Pius XII. In that post, we saw that the reform abandoned a large amount of symbolic text and ritual, so that much of the liturgical significance of Palm Sunday was lost. The resulting liturgy, which is contained in the 1962 missal, was one largely devoid of the traditional biblical typology, and the symbolism which demonstrated the continuity and harmony between the various moments of the history of salvation. The contemplative participation in the mystery of this day is consequently radically impaired: the symbolism that once offered us the medium of such participation has been destroyed.

This year, I have decided to devote two posts to the rites of Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil, of which much the same could be said as of Palm Sunday, perhaps even to a greater degree. The Easter Vigil is one of the most well-loved liturgies of the whole year among pious Catholics, yet little is known of its actual history, and of the magnificence of the ancient rite. The ancient rite conveys the sense that the liturgy is a means of actually revisiting the mysteries of our faith, and not merely thinking about them piously. In the liturgy, God is present to us in a real way through His mysteries, which are made available for our participation, so that we might be united to God through the mediation of the Incarnate Word, in whom God is united perfectly to man. There is a sense of realism underlying all of the symbolism of the rites; as Laszlo Dobszay notes, during this week especially the Church professes her belief that the mysteries are not merely remembered in the liturgy, but really and truly made present. A good deal of this sense was lost in the ritual reforms of Pius XII. Hopefully this will become clear in what follows.


Much controversy exists among historians regarding the time of celebration for the Easter Vigil. Whatever the specific disagreements, this much is clear: the mass of the Easter vigil was never, until the mid twentieth century, a first mass of Easter Sunday itself. There was never a midnight mass like that of Christmas. Indeed, the structure and character of the Easter vigil mass is one which is only partially a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection, and not the full celebration. There are various interpretations of this fact. Some compare this liturgical phenomenon to the biblical narrative, in which Christ, after He rose, nonetheless did not reveal Himself immediately to His disciples, but remained hidden for awhile. Hence, in the liturgy the resurrection is fully celebrated, not at the vigil Mass, but during the day on Sunday itself. Another interpretation is that the vigil liturgy, rather than celebrating the resurrection, anticipates it. Thus, though Christ is not yet risen, the Church joyfully anticipates His resurrection by a mass that is in some parts joyful and in other parts incomplete, to signify that the Church does not yet celebrate, but merely awaits that most sacred event. The moment of the resurrection itself occurs at midnight, at the celebration of Easter Matins and Lauds – the first of which has been eliminated in the 1955 rite, thus doing away with the most important hour of the office on the most important day of the year. Whichever interpretation one takes, the fact is that the vigil mass was always just that – a vigil, i.e. a waiting for the actual celebration, and not the full celebration itself. The modern notion of a vigil mass which is an early celebration of the mass of the day is a complete novelty. This means that, normally, the vigil mass would not have occurred deep in the night, around midnight, but earlier in the night, just after sunset; and it was not a mass of the feast day, but a preparation for it the feast. In actual fact, for pastoral reasons (which some have also interpreted symbolically), it often occurred during the day on Holy Saturday, since vespers was commonly sung earlier during Lent. But the normal time, as indicated by the liturgical texts themselves, is at night – but decidedly not at midnight, as an early mass of Easter Sunday.

So much for the time of the Easter Vigil. Greater changes occurred in 1955 in the actual ritual itself, which had the effect of destroying the profound symbolism that was contained in the traditional rites. Without going into absolutely all of the details, I will now attempt to provide a summary of the most important changes.

The vigil of Holy Saturday begins, in both the old and new rites, outside the Church with the blessing of the New Fire, or the Lucernarium. In the traditional rite, there are three prayers for the blessing of the fire, all of which make reference to a certain aspect of the symbolism of the fire. The first refers to the lighting of the fire by flint, with an allusion to Christ the cornerstone, Who lights our hearts on fire with divine splendor; and it prays that our hearts will be inflamed with heavenly desire during the Paschal season, so that we may enter into eternity with solemnity. The second prayer contains some of the same references, but speaking also of the light of the world and the pillar of fire which guided Moses towards the promised land; and it prays that we too might be led by this light towards the heavenly land promised to us. The third prayer invokes again the name of the Son, as well as the Holy Spirit, begging that the divine light of grace may strengthen us against the fiery darts of the enemy. The second and third prayers are no longer existent in the 1955 rite; thus, the typological reference to Moses and the pillar of flame no longer appears, nor the prayer for opposition of the divine to the demonic fire.

In the old rite, these prayers are followed by a fourth prayer for the blessing of the five grains of incense which are to be inserted later into the Paschal candle. After praying this prayer, the priest sprinkles both the fire and the grains of incense with holy water and incenses them with the thurible. Then all process into a darkened Church following the deacon, who carries a tall reed with a triple-branched candle. Each branch is lit from the New Fire successively as the procession moves closer toward the sanctuary, each time accompanied by a genuflection and the singing of the Lumen Christi. In the sanctuary, the Paschal candle itself is placed in a pillar next to the ambo. Once reaching the sanctuary, the magnificent rite of lighting the Paschal candle now occurs alongside the singing of the beautiful text of the Exsultet by the deacon. This whole rite – the procession of the triple candle, from which the Paschal candle is lit – symbolizes the Resurrection as the work of the Holy Trinity. The Exsultet is a ritual incantation for the lighting the candle. At the words “Therefore on this sacred night, O Holy Father, receive the evening sacrifice of this incense,” the five grains of incense are inserted into the candle. At the words, “And now we know the excellence of this pillar, which the bright fire lights for the honor of God,” the candle itself is lit. And then, at “O truly blessed night,” the whole Church, which up to this point has been in darkness, is bathed in light. The Exsultet is thus not merely a text or a song, but a ritual.

The Paschal candle is lit from the triple candle, with the FSSP in Rome.

This whole ritual, from the blessing of the fire to the Exsultet, has been radically changed, even mutilated, in the rite of Pius XII. The five grains are no longer blessed along with the fire; instead, they are inserted into the Paschal candle, which is then lit, still outside the Church, according to a ritual that is wholly novel and invented – and which has always struck me as awkward and disjointed in character. The Paschal candle itself is then carried into the Church, with the three genuflections and the Lumen Christi, which thus no longer correspond to the threefold ignition of the triple-candle, since it has been eliminated from the rite. Thus the Trinitarian symbolism of the Resurrection has been obscured – a symbolism which is fundamental to the entire Christian mystery and its universal liturgical expression – and the triple Lumen Christi has no actual liturgical function. The Paschal candle, already lit, is then placed in the center of the sanctuary, rather than next to the ambo. This is a strange departure from constant universal tradition, in which all the liturgical ritual revolves around that of the altar itself, whose centrality is never displaced. Moreover, since the candle is already lit, the symbolic and ritual function of the Exsultet is no longer existent, and the singing of that sacred text likewise no longer has any reason to exist, except as a text. This reflects a general trend in the 20th century reforms, which suppressed much of the ancient sense of the action of the liturgy, and reduced the liturgy to a mere text; or else sought to invent an arbitrary ritual with no basis in traditional symbolic modes of expression. The lack of ritual in the Exsultet is an especially disturbing loss, since the traditional rite of lighting the Paschal candle was perhaps one of the greatest highlights of the liturgical year, and now the connection of the text to the ritual action has been entirely lost: no longer are the grains of incense inserted at the words which indicate so; no longer is the candle itself lit when the texts refers to this action; and no longer is the darkness of the Church enlightened at the words which refer to the blessedness of this sacred night, which is illumined by the Resurrection.

In both rites, the singing of the Exsultet is followed by the chanting of the prophecies. In the traditional rite, there are twelve prophecies read, each of them prefiguring some aspect of the Resurrection. Some of the most beautiful and most profound texts of the entire Old Testament are sung in this rite, in which a complete picture of the history of salvation is typologically and symbolically portrayed, as it culminates in the Resurrection. In the new rite of 1955, only four of these twelve prophecies remain. Among those suppressed are some of the most vivid symbolic depictions and prophecies of some aspect of the Resurrection contained in the Old Testament: the tale of Noah and the Ark (Genesis 5, 31; 8, 21), the sacrifice of Abraham (Genesis 22, 1-19), a prophetic image of baptism and restoration (Isaiah 54, 17-55, 11), a discourse in praise of the light of wisdom (Baruch 3, 9-38), the valley of the dry bones (Ezekiel 12, 1-14), the Paschal lamb (Exodus 12,1-12), a discourse on penance (Jonah 3, 1-10), and the tale of the three young men in the furnace (Daniel 3, 1-24). This heavy elimination of scriptural texts is somewhat ironic, given the purported intention of the 20th century reformers to expand the quantity of scripture contained in the liturgy. In any case, a substantial body of symbolic content was lost with the suppression of these texts, with a result similar to that of the reform of Palm Sunday: no longer does the liturgy offer to us so vivid a picture of the Resurrection, as it is presented to us figuratively in the Old Testament, fulfilled in the New, and participated in by God’s people – us, the worshipers – unto life everlasting. This participation occurs principally through the sacraments, especially baptism, but also through the liturgical living out of the fruits of baptism by the celebration of the Resurrection itself, which is the archetype of baptism (new life, regeneration, etc).

(To be continued.)


  1. I recall reading somewhere that in medieval rites/uses, the readings were reduced to four. Such is the case of the Bragan missal, of which I find the readings kept quite poor in typological imagery. We have Genesis, Exodus, and then two accounts from Isaiah which just refer to God's promises. On the plus side, the Bragan Exsultet has a Marian interpolation when speaking about the bees (I believe it can be found in other medieval uses as well).

    One thing I would like to understand a bit better is the symbology before the Exsultet. Is the New Fire supposed to represent God (Who is a "consuming fire")? Also, why is Lumen Christi sung at each lighting of the triple-branched candlestick? Does it mean that, as each candle represents a Person of the Trinity, that the Lumen Christi comes from each of the Divine Persons?
    It is sad how the Exsultet, which was the blessing of the Paschal candle, has become reduced to a mere text sung in praise of it.

    Do we know when the triple-branched candle came into the rite? And how much does the Vigil import from the Jerusalemite rite?

    1. Yes, the Bragan rite, and I think some other medieval rites, have fewer prophecies. This may be a point at which we may recognize the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the various rites.

      I was also asking myself about the symbolism of the New Fire a couple days ago. Certainly it is still somehow connected to the light of Christ, as indicated by the prayers connected to lighting the fire; even though the light of Christ is properly signified by the Paschal Candle itself. But, remembering the Thomistic doctrine of circumincession, the Three Persons may truly be said to be "in" each other, and Christ Himself is especially understood to be the revelation, not only of the Second Person, but of the whole Trinity: through Christ, indeed, we enter into the life of the Trinity. So even the Lumen Christi is a revelation of all and each of the three persons.

      It does sometimes take a bit of imagination to try and understand the symbolism. Of course the light of Christ is symbolized throughout, but I think with varying degrees of intensity, culminating in the Paschal Candle. Insofar as the church is a microcosmos, the light of Christ as external to the cosmos - the transcendent God, the Creator who is beyond all things - may be represented by the New Fire; but this same God reveals Himself in His Trinitarian life by entering into the world - and thus entering into the Church - in the person of Christ. Thus, the Paschal Candle is the divine light taken as the revelation of the three persons, signified by the triple candle, in the person of Christ, within the world. This way of celebrating the Resurrection seems to not be forgetting the fact of the Incarnation - the former is revealed as the meaning of the latter. God, who is beyond the world, truly enters into the world, taking flesh in Christ...

      As for the history of triple candle, I am sure you have probably seen this post over at Liturgical Arts:

    2. That interpretation of the New Fire is certainly not without its difficulties - the main one I am thinking of is that here the outdoors of the church building are taken to be the extra-cosmic "place" of the transcendent God "outside" the world, in relation to the interior of the church, which is the intra-cosmic "place" of the world itself. It is a kind of transcendence-immanence dyad. Remarkably, it is also a reversal of the usual symbolism: usually, the outside of the church is taken to be profane space, whereas the interior is taken to be sacred space. It is quite surprising to see this reversal... Yet I think it is really beautiful because it is so surprising - if my interpretation is valid (and it certainly need not be the only interpretation). If we were rationalists, this reversal of symbolism might be disturbing to us; but we should rather see it as a revelation of the God of surprises.