The instructions for the Easter Vigil in the Roman Missal begin by stating, ”By most ancient tradition, this is the night of keeping vigil for the Lord”. However, the concept of "keeping vigil" in a culture of instant gratification might seem archaic, especially when our Masses too often embody a "get-to-the-point" attitude rather than a sense of deliberate and patient contemplation. Vigilant prayer is difficult work, and the reality is that we are not well trained to "vigil" well. "The dynamic of hearing the texts, responding in psalm and collect prayer is meant to foster abiding gratitude and awareness of how salvation is effected among us, especially through word and sacrament, particularly baptism and eucharist" (Kevin W. Irwin). However, "to foster abiding gratitude and awareness" of how God acts to save us requires a true investment of time and concentration. For this reason, the tradition of the Church attests to the uniqueness of the Easter Vigil and the unparalleled gift of "this night" to Christians everywhere.
This gift the Easter Vigil desires to give us is the answer to our question, “who are you, O God, you who create, redeem, and promise future glory?” This is best answered according to the context in which the nine scripture passages are proclaimed, for it is a context unlike any other in our liturgical calendar. The Church assembles in the evening shadows around the flames of the new Easter fire. There, the Church blesses God's gift of light, which provides us direction and warmth, signs of Christ's abiding presence among us. The Church processes with this light and sings the Exsultet, our victory hymn in which we announce that "This is the night" of the Church's Passover from bondage to freedom. The Celebrant will then announce to us:
"Dear brothers and sisters, now that we have begun our solemn Vigil, let us listen with quiet hearts to the Word of God. Let us meditate on how God in times past saved his people and in these, the last days, has sent us his Son as our Redeemer. Let us pray that our God may complete this paschal work of salvation by the fullness of redemption."
We will settle in, and listen quietly to the nine scripture readings, making our pilgrim way in confidence and faith that "Christ our Passover" (from the prayer after the First Reading) is the incarnate answer to the question we pose to God.
I look forward to having you join me in savoring these stories of God's gift of salvation on March 31 at 8 P.M. They are a reminder that God did not merely create the world and then get out of the way; God is intimately invested in His creation. Keeping Vigil is a pilgrim journey out of the darkness of sin and slavery into the light of freedom and hope. History fulfilled and promises assured are what mark the scripture readings of this sacred night. We are reminded that God loved the world into being, is unfailingly patient and merciful with us, loved us unto death, and conquered sin and death by Christ’s Resurrection. We will be caught up in the awesome wonder of a love that cannot be contained in a tomb.
Keeping Vigil with you,
David J. Conrad