The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night of Easter
Reading 1: Genesis 1:1-2:2
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 104:1-2, 5-6, 10, 12-14, 24, 35
Reading 2: Genesis 22:1-18
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 16:5, 8-11
Reading 3: Ex 14:15-15:1
Responsorial Psalm: Exodus 15:1-6, 17-18
Reading 4: Isaiah 54:5-14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 30:2, 4-6, 11-13
Reading 5: Isaiah 55:1-11
Responsorial Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6
Reading 6: Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 19:8-11
Reading 7: Ezekiel 36:16-28
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 42:3, 5; 43:3-4
Epistle: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 6:3-11
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23
Gospel: According to St. Mark 16:1-7
As the daylight fades into the West and Holy Saturday comes to a close, the Easter Fire is lit in anticipation of the Resurrection of the Son, soon to be heralded by the rising of the sun in the East. The symbolism inherent in the setting and rising of the sun on this night which, as the ritual for the Passover Seder meal says, is “different from every other night” is a perfect backdrop for the Easter Vigil liturgy.
Whenever I ponder the symbolic actions of the Vigil Mass I am reminded of The Lord of the Rings, the masterwork of English Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien. More specifically, one particular phrase from the text – a phrase that became the title of the Oscar winning song from the film version of The Return of the King – stands out in my mind as the sun sets on Holy Saturday.
That phrase – “into the West” – referred ultimately to the final journey that each of us must take, the journey that ends with our passing from this world to the next. As an Englishman, Tolkien felt the deep cultural roots of this symbolism. For his ancestors who lived in the British Isles in a time before the Age of Exploration, whatever lay beyond was as mysterious as death itself.
In a scene from the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, the hobbits witness a group of elves walking through the forest to the western shore where they would begin their voyage into the West. They are leaving Middle Earth because “the world is changing” and the age of the elves is fading away. There is an incredible sadness in this brief scene, a sadness which conveys the universal human reaction to the end of life. For Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis autumn was the greatest of seasons for this very reason – all of nature is in tune with the inevitable journey into the West.
Tolkien once said that the theme of The Lord of the Rings was the theme of all great literature: death. A man who fought in and saw most of his friends die in the Great War can be forgiven for having such an outlook. Yet, in the end, The Lord of the Rings is about more than death, it is about going home. For a modern nihilist, death is simply the end, not even warranting the romantic euphemism of “going into the West;” but for a believer like Tolkien death is not merely a physical state, it is a spiritual moment of transition.
On Good Friday Jesus went into the West, as we all must do. As with the movement of the elves, the journey of our Lord indicates the passing away of the old world. This new world that is initiated on Easter Sunday when He returns is spoken of in the Old Testament prophecies and psalms that are read at the Easter Vigil Mass. These readings and others all point not only to the Resurrection, but also beyond Easter to the time spoken of in the Revelation to St. John where Christ the King proclaims: “Behold, I make all things new.”
Easter celebrates God’s fulfilled promise that going into the West is not the end; and it guides our thoughts, words, and actions toward that culmination of salvation history when all will witness the return of the King and, like today, all can proclaim:
Christ Is Risen! He Is Truly Risen!
May you and all those you love have a very blessed Easter.