At sunset on Holy Saturday we begin our celebration of the Feast of the Resurrection with the Easter Vigil. Did you ever wonder why we start celebrating Easter on Saturday night? The answer lies in the fact that the first followers of Jesus were Jews and the early Church adopted many of the Jewish traditions. Among them was the tradition that the new day begins at sunset and not midnight.
As is true with most liturgical celebrations, the observance of the Resurrection evolved slowly. Disagreements over when it should be observed were first settled late in the second century by Pope Victor I, who decreed that the feast of the Resurrection should be celebrated on the Sunday after the fourteenth of Nisan, the date of the Jewish Passover. In 335 a.d., the First Council of Nicea changed the celebration to the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. Since it is tied to the phases of the moon rather than a calendar date, Easter may occur anytime between March 23 and April 25.
Vigil comes from the Latin word for watchfulness and reflects a theology of expectation carried over from Judaism where tradition held that the Messiah would come in the middle of the night. The Easter Vigil keeps watch for Jesus’ rising from the dead which gospel tradition says occurred during the night.
This theme is continued in the Easter Proclamation or Exsultet with the words: “This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.”
Rich with Resurrection symbolism, the vigil begins with the striking of the new fire, the blessing of the Paschal Candle, the shattering of the darkness by the spreading of the Light of Christ and the consecration of the baptismal water, all manifesting new life and redemption.
So with the baptism of the catechumens, whose journey reaches its culmination in the ultimate sharing in the Paschal Mystery, by being “buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
Easter is not an ending but a beginning. For eight days the gospels tell and retell the story of Jesus’ triumph over death and his appearances to his disciples. At the same time the daily New Testament readings begin relating how his saving presence will continue in the Church.
Jesus’ Resurrection is the center point of the mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Resurrexit sicut dixit! He is risen as he said! Alleluia!
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