Non Solum: Easter Vigil Procession

A reader writes in:

What to do about the Easter Vigil Procession? The procession is a great moment of ritual action, but I think we can do it more effectively. Our parish tried to follow the Missal last year–dramatically turning on the lights right after the final “Thanks be to God.” We waited until people were in their seats for the deacon to take the candle to the altar, however, which resulted in about 5 minutes of people shuffling silently in the dark between the 2nd and 3rd “The Light of Christ.” Part of me says this is an excellent embodied metaphor for how most of us come to Christ. Another part says this is a potentially dangerous and frustrating moment for parishioners made anticlimactic by the immediate flip of the light switch once they reach their seats. How do y’all handle it?

The Easter Vigil is the mother of all vigils and that also makes it a difficult liturgy to plan. Given the complexity of the Easter Vigil, it is important that all of the parts be carefully orchestrated. What are your tips and tricks for implementing the Easter Vigil Procession? How does your community organize the start of the Easter Vigil?

Please comment below.


  1. Our parish does something a bit different in order to address several of these concerns. Most of these decisions were made a while back, so there has been a gradual transition toward the revisions in the Missal.

    Lighting – After the last “Thanks be to God”, we turn on enough light for the Celebrant and the Readers to see their respective texts–sort of a middle ground. When we reach the Gloria, we punch the lighting up to full-on.

    Delay between Acclamations – I know of very few parishes that can avoid delays here. We try to time the “TbtG” acclamations so that they are equally spaced. However, we also run into the “logjam” that happens when everyone wants to be first in the door, lest someone take their prized seat. Despite our efforts, the time between the 2nd and 3rd acclamations tends to be drawn out and is usually punctuated by requests to “keep moving, keep moving…”

    Candle lighting – Due to the way our building is constructed, the congregation cannot light their candles either outside or in the foyer, as the candles will immediately go out due to a cross-draft. Therefore, we have to get people inside the church proper before candles can be lit. Because of this, we try to place Hospitality Ministers all around the back of room to light candles, that way everyone doesn’t stop at the very first HM’s station and grind the procession to a screeching halt. This has worked very well, and we have added some HMs with flashlights to escort any elderly or ambulatory-challenged folks, that way they don’t trip / fall.

    It’s not a perfect system, but given our “procedural history” and our building layout, its fairly functional for the attendance that night.

  2. Our custom is for people to light their candles after the first, rather than the second, Lumen Christi. This provides enough light for people to find their way around safely. The Exsultet is then sung, and all the readings read in darkness, apart from the light of the Paschal Candle in the Sanctuary, the lights only going on as the Gloria is intoned. The following You Tube videos (shot in 2008) show how it all works.

    The long Gloria is required because all the statues are being unveiled and the candles lighted at this point.

    I must admit I love the Easter Vigil. It this highlight of my liturgical year. The bit I love most of all is when the choir sings the Latin version of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah during communion.

    This adaption of Handel was done by William Sewell, a former choirmaster at the Birmingham Oratory. Many other classical pieces were adapted in this way. We have a Latin version of the Shepherd’s Farewell from Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ which is always brought out at Christmas, and a Latin adaptation of “How lovely are thy dwellings from Brahms’ German Requiem, which is always a joy and a delight to hear.

  3. As for the pell-mell nature of the procession itself, I can’t speak for other parts of the world, but in most US parishes people come to the Vigil before it begins, choose seats (in some cases, carefully due to accessibility issues of many kinds, lest we forget, not all of the readily visible), have stuff at those seats, and expect to get back to those seats.

    Liturgists and ministers who wish congregants would be more organic and spontaneous – or more organized – should be prepared for disappointment and move on. You’re just not going to win that one in most cases.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been a community that did not turn on all the lights but the altar/reredos candles at the conclusion of the Service of Light, as indicated in the Missal. The idea of waiting to light things up (or maintaining minimal lighting) until the Gloria is a holdover from when the still somewhat penitential Vigil service preceded the festive Mass properly speaking, and the Gloria signified the beginning of the Mass. Keeping things dark during the readings can also smack of treating the Old Testament as being associated with darkness in contrast to the New Testament, an unfortunate association that led to tragic tropes in Christian-Jewish relations over the centuries. The Vigil is not a historical reenactment, and there is no single liturgical moment that marks the inflection point or a precise echo of the moment of the Resurrection.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #3:
      As a point of clarification, the 1962 Missal (and I assume those printed from 1955 to 1962) all prescribed that the church lights be turned on along with the candles of those in the assembly being lit after the third Deo Gratias, when the deacon/priest reached the sanctuary. It should also be noted that the 2002 Missal changed the locations of when the Lumen Christi is sung from what was indicated in the 1970 Missal, seemingly re-adjusting the locations to the points indicated in the 1962 Missal.

      Personally, it seems odd to me to direct that people walk (outside) in darkness (i.e., with unlit candles) toward a church (and into a church), even though they (should) have candles in their hands, and only light the candles after they get into the church when all the church lights have been turned on.

      Even though we celebrate the entire Paschal Mystery on each day of the Triduum (the Good Friday Prayer after Communion does mention “resurrection”), there is a liturgical unfolding of the mystery at the liturgies of each day, and at the Vigil, there is a specific moment when the altar candles are lit, and another moment when the Alleluia is re-introduced. For me, it does make some sense to “enhance” the lighting of the sanctuary (“altar”) candles during the Gloria with adding more light throughout the body of the church.

  4. Some very good points here about the significance of light, so our local traditions could bear re-thinking, but here’s what we do: We spread the light to the congregation after the third acclamation. Then ministers with candles gather around the cantor and the sign language interpreter as they proclaim the Exultet by candlelight. We wait until the Alleluia to turn on the lights (former pastor’s whim, but it stuck). The Easter fire is visible through a large picture window during the readings.

  5. In the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Vigil is ordered more like the previous Roman rite (1955?): Entrance of the Candle, Vigil of Old Testament readings, baptism and then the Gloria, followed by the Collect and the epistle. So the initial procession with the three acclamations does not at that time lead to the full lighting of the church.
    So, in many places like ours, the lights are not put on fully until after the baptisms, and the initial “Alleluia. Christ is risen!” acclamation, and then the Gloria is sung, often preceded by much bell-ringing and the organ playing rather wildly. The Altar candles area lighted then. This is the “turning point” from Lent to Easter.

    The rubrics also allow the order to be the OF Romany one; with e Gloria after the last OT lesson and the Baptism after the gospel. I have not seen how the initial Candle procession is handled in that case.
    Mark MIller

  6. At many parishes here in Baltimore (including my own) there is no procession by the assembly (and everyone seems to consider that perfectly normal). The fire is lighted in the back of the church and the people are already in their pews. At my parish, after the paschal candle is lighted, I sing the first Lumen Christi and light the tapers of the ministers around the fire. I then process to the middle of the assembly for the second Lumen Christi, after which I light the tapers of some of the members of the assembly, who begin spreading it from pew to pew. At the front of the church I sing the third Lumen Christi and if the fire has not yet made it to the front pews I light the tapers of some of the people there. Then I put the pascal candle in the stand.

  7. For Health and Safety reasons, perhaps the vigil should be moved to Saturday morning. This would also allow everyone to start eating their chocolates that much earlier.

    1. @Tony Phillips – comment #8:

      Perhaps you are unaware that for centuries the Vigil was on the Saturday morning. Pius XII’s Holy Week reforms in the 1950s restored it to its place on Saturday night as a true vigil. I can’t imagine that anyone would want to return to the previous practice, which was frequently carried out by just a priest and one server, with no congregation present.

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #10:
        I still have one of the three breached candles the priest used in those days, lighting one branch after each Lumen Christi. Minimalism at its “best.”

  8. We are candle-lit until the Gloria. The exceptions are the celebrant, lectern and the music stands etc which have battery operated reading lights – the kind of thing that clips on to a book for reading in bed. All gather outside (age and health permitting) and all process in. Peoples candles are lit after the first “Christ our Light” after which they find their seat.
    It seems to work well, though with a barely suppressed air of hilarity.

  9. This is one of those areas where I think local needs, layout of the church, aisles, doors, etc. will trump ideals and rubrics. I grew up in rural Minnesota (pre-global warming) and there’s NO WAY you had any outdoor fire or outdoor procession.
    Now I live in rainy and windy Seattle–we do our best each year, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.

  10. Our church lights are dim able and are set very low to permit people to safely find their way to their seats holding their unlit candles. As the liturgy begins with the blessing of the new fire, the church lights are turned off. The light of the new fire is dramatic able to penetrate into the church separated by a glass wall from the baptistry. One of the deacons holds the newly lit paschal and intones the light of Christ in three spots on the way to the candle stand next to the Ambo. The exultet is sung by a capable cantor and choir followed by the OT lessons. Just before the gloria begins, the tapers of the clergy and ministers are lit from the paschal and taken to the people. By the end of the gloria the church is ablaze with light after which the house lights are turned on. There is a dimmed light above the ambo and there is also some light above the choir area. No one has ever wondered if the darkness somehow harms the OT lessons. This works for us. The church is full every year as we celebrate the Easter Sacraments with many catechumens. The Liturgy is followed by a marvelous reception for the newly initiated as people rejoice till nearly midnight. Deo gratias.

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