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What Is the Easter Vigil?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 July 2014
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The Easter vigil is a Christian ritual that occurs the day before Easter Sunday. The service celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is the first service to celebrate the Easter holiday and the culmination of Lent. Each denomination has distinct traditions associated with the service, but some traditions, such as the lighting of the Paschal candle and baptismal services, are common to many churches. Though not all forms of Christianity celebrate the Easter Vigil, it is common in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches.

In most churches, the Easter vigil is held after sunset on the Saturday just prior to Easter, a day often known as “Holy Saturday.” The early start to the Easter celebration dates back to ancient traditions, where religious holidays actually began at sunset on the day before the official celebratory date. This tradition is echoed in the celebration of the Sabbath in Jewish traditions, where the weekly holy day begins at sunset on Friday, and continues throughout Saturday.

Each church may use different biblical readings to celebrate the Easter Vigil. These may be drawn from various books of the bible, including Genesis, Exodus, and Christian Gospels. In many cases, the readings include a recounting of Jesus' resurrection, usually described through a story of his followers arriving to find his tomb empty. This event is the basis for Christian Easter celebrations, and the resurrection stories are only recounted at the Easter Vigil and subsequent Easter celebrations.

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The Easter vigil is a significant ceremony not only for the biblical readings, but for the unique traditions celebrated only at this service. One common ceremony is the lighting of the Easter or Paschal candle, which is a large candle kept burning throughout the year, and replaced each year at Easter. The candle is typically extinguished on Good Friday, as a symbol of the death of Christ, and not re-lit until the Vigil. The new candle is typically lit outside the church, from a fire that has been blessed by church officiants. Parishioners follow the lit candle into the darkened church, and may carry small tapers lit from the same fire. In some churches, the entire service is performed only by candlelight.

Since Easter is a symbol of rebirth and re-commitment to the church, many denominations also celebrate baptisms, first communion recipients, and candidates for confirmation at this service. Since each of these ceremonies serves as a rebirth in the eyes of the church, it is considered appropriate to incorporate them into the Easter vigil. At other times of the year, these ceremonies may be conducted privately and are not typically integrated into a regular church service.

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