Fire and light - the chasm between theory and practice at the Easter Vigil

Thomas O'Loughlin

The Easter Vigil poses many practical difficulties for celebration. However, are we by-passing the deeper problems it poses to believers today, and missing its greatest opportunities as an expression of our faith? Thomas O'Loughlin is a Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

fire and lightNowhere in the entire liturgy is the chasm between theory and practice so gaping as at the Easter Vigil. Anyone reading books about the Easter Vigil meets nothing but superlatives: this is the centre of the whole year, mother of vigils, the greatest moment of joy, night truly blessed, and on and on. The same writers then quote beautiful early sources: a homily from Sardis, another from Ambrose, and some nuggets from Origen  -  for ancient Christian footnotes it cannot be beaten! On the ground it is very different. After sixty years of a public night-time vigil (the Easter Vigil was reformed before the reforms of Vatican II), it has in many places become just another Saturday evening Mass with 'bits' added. In most communities it has failed to capture the imagination of the majority, and seems just an elaborate set of jobs to be 'got through because it is Easter.' Quite apart from the fact that 'an Easter break' is now a fixed part of the holiday plans of many people, it is often a time of relatively empty pews. If we think of attendance as a measure of significance, then the Vigil is a thorough failure: at no other time is felt worth so out of kilter with that formal 'authorized' explanation.

There is a further irony. Recent decades have seen a massive level of experimentation in liturgy to find the dramatic, that which arrests the senses, and that which engages people's bodies and feelings as well as their minds. I have seen this desire to engage the senses used to justify every form of ritual from dance-based liturgy to a revival of the pre-1970 High Mass. Yet, the Vigil is one of the few moments in the formal liturgy that is full of drama  -  a great bonfire is mandated, the strange activity of passing 'light from light', an eerie candle-lit procession into a darkened building, and the events linked to a baptism (either actual or virtual)  -  and the drama is built into the very rubrics! Yet, this drama is very often skipped, frequently minimized, and almost never properly exploited.

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