The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vigil as "the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary" and "a period of wakefulness." You may have heard the word vigil on TV shows where a community is mourning a loss (or losses) by gathering in the evening with candles to remember and honor the loss and support each other.
The Easter (or "Paschal") Vigil is a bit different as it marks a transition from dark into light, despair to hope, spiritual emptiness to spiritual newness. It is the celebration of Christ's resurrection and the redemptive gift He has given the world. The Easter Vigil marks the end of Lent, where practitioners had spent the last 40 days giving up something in reverence of Christ's sacrifice.
Not all churches practice the tradition of an Easter Vigil, as it is mainly observed in liturgical denominations of Christianity such as Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox. Liturgical churches include a set structure and ritual for worship that generally follows the church calendar year. Many non-denominational, Baptist, and charismatic branches of Christianity only observe Good Friday (commemorating Christ's crucifixion) and Easter Sunday (commemorating Christ's resurrection). The Easter Vigil observes the transition from the darkness of Holy Saturday (the day after Good Friday) to the joy of Easter Sunday (excluding Oriental Orthodoxy).
Because each denomination has slight differences in their symbolism, theology, and fine details in their service, we'll give a very brief overview of a "generic" Easter Vigil service here. Some of these elements may differ depending on the denomination of the church holding the service. If you decide to go to an Easter Vigil, we'd suggest you research the specific denomination's practice and history to learn more.
The Service of Light: An Easter Vigil service begins after sundown for all denominations. A Catholic Easter Vigil may last anywhere from 2-3 hours. The service begins in darkness (John 20:1), after which the Easter (or Paschal) candle is lit, signifying the proclamation of the resurrection. From there, the individual parishioners will light their candles from the Easter flame, which symbolizes the spread of the very Light of Hope that Christ brought for all mankind (Mark 16).
The Exsultet, an old Easter song, may conclude this part of the liturgy.
The Liturgy of the Word: After the candle-lighting, someone will read from the Old Testament, perhaps the Psalms, recitations, and a homily/sermon will be given by the priest or pastor.
The Liturgy of Initation/The Liturgy of Baptism: Next is The Liturgy of Baptism or The Liturgy of Initiation for new converts looking to be formally initiated into the church. For multiple denominations (not just Roman Catholic), the Easter Vigil also serves as a large baptismal service for those wanting to obey Jesus' directive in Scripture (Matthew 28:19) and renew their baptismal vows.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist: The Easter Vigil ends on a celebration of the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper/Communion. For a Catholic or Orthodox service, the Eucharist is only available for confirmed members to partake of. The Eucharist is typically celebrated Easter morning, leaving the final part of the Easter Vigil for some time after midnight. Rarely, there will be a non-Eucharistic Vigil, but in such cases the Eucharist will be celebrated the following day.
One of the beautiful things about Christianity and about God is the creative diversity in which people all over the world—or even just in your community—worship Him. A liturgical style of church service isn't for everyone, just as a contemporary style isn't for everyone. Additionally, you may find that you don't agree with everything about another denomination's practices and/or theology.
If you are interested in attending an Easter Vigil, look up the church you're planning to attend for it. Is it Anglican? Lutheran? Orthdox? Roman Catholic? You can usually find out with a quick Google search. From there, do a bit of research on that particular denomination's beliefs and practices so you can best respect the church. For example, if you plan on attending a Catholic Easter Vigil, you aren't supposed to take communion unless you're a member of the Catholic faith.
The Bible doesn't speak of observing an Easter Vigil, so attendance is a matter of conscience. Romans 14:5 tells us, "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." If you would like to observe an Easter Vigil, then you should be fully convinced that it does not violate God’s Word, that it can be done to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), and that it would be spiritually beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23).
An Easter Vigil can be a beautiful gathering of Christians around the world, all worshipping and praising the birth of hope from Jesus Christ's resurrection. One way to grow in your faith is to see how other Christians worship and ask yourself questions. Why do they do things a specific way? Is it biblical? Is it tradition? Why is it a tradition? Is tradition something to ignore, examine, or wholly accept?
On the other hand, if you're not comfortable with attending a 2- to 3-hour long service or if you feel convicted not to attend for any reason, there's nothing wrong with that! This decision is between you and God, and the Holy Spirit can work in your heart no matter which answer you land on.
An Easter Vigil is the celebration of Christ's resurrection and the redemptive gift He has given the world. Typically held on the Saturday after Good Friday, this service marks the end of Lent. Easter Vigil can be a beautiful gathering of Christians, all worshipping and praising the birth of hope from Jesus Christ's resurrection. The Bible doesn't speak of observing an Easter Vigil, so attendance is a matter of conscience (Romans 14:5). It's between you and God, and the Holy Spirit can work in your heart no matter which answer you land on.
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.