Lighting the Easter Vigil

by Michael O’Connor

I have been attending the Easter Vigil since I was in short trousers. In all those decades, the lighting has followed a similar pattern:

Church in darkness; fire; Easter Candle lit, then flame passed to the tapers held by each member of the assembly; “The Light of Christ” three times; Exsultet proclaimed in the semi-darkness; tapers extinguished and, in half-light (or near-total darkness), the Old Testament readings follow. At the end of these readings, there is a sudden change: the church is ablaze with light as the Gloria begins, the organ finally unrestrained in its power; also, the altar candles are lit. I’ve worshiped in a variety of institutions and parishes, on two continents, and this has been the basic pattern in all of them.

I discovered this year that the wording in the Missal calls for something different. After the third “light of Christ” is sung, “the Deacon places the paschal candle on a large candlestand prepared next to the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary. And lights (lampades) are lit throughout the church, except for the altar candles.” The Exsultet is, therefore, to be proclaimed in a combined blaze of candlelight and electric light. This light then bathes the readings from the law and the prophets in its paschal glow.

The next reference to lights is the following: “After the last reading from the Old Testament with its Responsorial Psalm and its prayer, the altar candles are lit, and the Priest intones the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), which is taken up by all, while bells are rung, according to local custom.” In other words, the return of the Gloria is marked not by lighting effects but by sound – music and bells.

The common adaptation makes some clear gains: the proclamation of the light of the resurrection happens in the festive glow of candles, rather than the quotidian glare of electric lights. And the Lenten fast from the Gloria (and alleluia) comes to an end with a multi-sensory fanfare.

But I wonder if something is lost. Why is the Easter light welcomed into the assembly, only to be extinguished at the end of the Exsultet with the darkness taking hold once more? Why is the proclamation of creation and redemption – with all the accompanying paschal psalms and prayers – cast into a crepuscular gloom? Are those readings outside the embrace of the resurrection? In the seventies it was even the practice in some parishes to re-structure the Vigil so that the liturgy of light followed the near-complete darkness of the Old Testament readings. In all of this, is there an unconscious supersessionism at work in the way the Hebrew scriptures are treated? Against all the words that are spoken and sung, does the lighting of the Vigil say that the Old Testament is darkness and the New alone is light?

Dr. Michael O’Connor is Associate Professor in the Christianity and Culture program at St. Michael’s College University of Toronto. His research focuses on the history and practice of music and the liturgy, and on theology and biblical exegesis in the Christian tradition. He also runs a weekly Singing Club on campus and directs the USMC Schola Cantorum.


  1. When the new Roman Missal was rolled out, our diocesan Liturgy Office made a big point of pointing out that most communities have been doing this wrong. I think we’re better off by having the lights on during the Old Testament readings for a variety of reasons.

    Don’t tell anyone, but we still proclaim the Exsultet in darkness. Visually, singing about bees and candle wax and flames, it seems better to be in darkness.

    We have the benefit of having a brand new worship space with extremely flexible lighting options. So while we turn on “all the lights” after the Exsultet, we actually only put the lights on above the altar at 60%, so this way, when the altar server is lighting the altar candles, we can put them up to 100%, to make it obvious they are being lit.

  2. I remember the common practice getting retired in places when people realized it had the unintended effect that the reading of Old Testament lections and psalms echoed the idea of the medieval figures of the blindfolded Synagoga. Also, not falling into the trap of echoing the feel services of lessons and carols in Advent/Christmas-tide (and vice-versa).

  3. Funny, I was just thinking about this as I was mowing the lawn this morning. I was even considering a PT post (I guess I’ll have to think of something else).

    My impression is that in many places the practice of having the OT readings in darkness is becoming less common, though many places still have the Exsultet sung by only candlelight (that’s at least what we still do in our parish). I think the reasoning is that laid out by Chuck.

    During my lawn-mowing ruminations it occurred to me that the rubrical directive that the lampades be lighted before the Exsultet doesn’t really take into account the difference between oil lamps and electric lights. A Church prior to 1900 in which oil or gas lights were kindled would look very different from a church with a modern lighting system, which mimics daylight. Isn’t the very idea of “vigiling” tied up with a sense of it being night, something that modern lights largely obliterates? If we’re going to turn on all of our daylight-mimicking lights for the Exsultet, maybe we should just go back to having the Vigil during the day.

    I would also add that the post-conciliar reshuffling of the Vigil, in which the OT readings and NT readings are separated only by the Gloria, might exacerbate the “supersessionism” of the Vigil by making the Gloria and the lighting of the altar candles (or, in some places, putting the electric lights on full) appear to mark the transition from Old Covenant to New, or from Law to Gospel, or from Letter to Spirit, rather than simply marking the beginning of the Mass proper, as it did previously. I think if we had the OT readings, then the blessing of the font and baptisms, and then the burst of joy in the Gloria, the effect might be quite different.

    1. FWIW, I agree with Fritz: “A Church prior to 1900 in which oil or gas lights were kindled would look very different from a church with a modern lighting system, which mimics daylight. Isn’t the very idea of “vigiling” tied up with a sense of it being night, something that modern lights largely obliterates?”
      I would add that “vigilare” also has the sense of “watching” and “waiting” through the night, i.e., it describes a slow and patient process. Throwing on all the lights at once destroys the sense and experience of patient expectation.
      The ancient vigil began in the dark and ended with dawn. It is a basic natural symbol of death and resurrection — why bring supercessionism into it?
      Since we are not prepared to have a truly “all-night” vigil, I find the use of a gradual increase in lighting a very effective counterpart to what would once have been the gradual coming of daylight. It allows the Paschal Candle to be a symbolic focus, and the light of the people’s candles lit from it to have an eloquence of its own.
      Paul Inwood’s comments about the real lucernarium are also most interesting, and remind me that the now-forbidden experiments of the ’70s provided, at least for me, some of the most memorable Easter Vigils ever, without the strangely duplicated proclamations of the Resurrection: one at the lighting of the fire and candle and the Exsultet, and another at the Gloria/NT Reading/Gospel.

  4. From a pratical viewpoint of the pew, there are two things held in tension. One is that people love candle light and when you turn on the lights as the rubric prescribes, there is relatively little time spent in candle light. This also can feed into the comment about the modern lighting system and the nature of the vigil.

    Against this you have a church full of people trying to navigate in the dark. Especially during the vigil, people are more likely to use worship aids or hand missals for the Exsultet and the OT readings which can be tricky when holding a flame.

  5. I’m typing this at home, away from my books, but my recollection of the late Kenneth Stevenson’s book Jerusalem Revisited is that he adduced evidence for there being not one but two lightings of lamps at the Easter Vigil in the early Church. The initial lighting was a purely practical one, so that people could see. The one later one, after the scripture readings, was the real lucernarium, a celebration of light. In this perspective, the insistence of those in Rome that the service of light at the beginning of the Vigil is the real lucernarium and so cannot be moved or tinkered with appears as lacking in historical awareness.

    In the mid-1980s, liturgists who had thought about this would say things like: “You have all that wonderful symbolism — the fire, the new light and the candle, the Exsultet — and then, in effect, you say ‘All right, now let’s all sit down and find out just why we did all that.’ ” In other words, perhaps Stevenson is right that the real lucernarium should come after the Liturgy of the Word and not before, when we have a context for celebrating the Light of Christ.

    Many different experiments took place during the 1970s and 80s, before the instruction on the celebration of Easter, Paschale Solemnitatis, in 1988 attempted to put a stop to it. That instruction, however, according to Pierre Jounel, had been principally motivated by the discovery that rural Italian priests were habitually getting through the entire Vigil, including Mass, in 40-45 minutes.

    Some of those “experiments” have continued to this day. In France you will still find more than a few celebrations where the new fire is blessed, then everyone sits down to listen to the readings by firelight and candlelight, and the Paschal Candle is then blessed and lit and the Exsultet sung in close proximity to the proclamation of the Gospel of the Resurrection, with all the lights in the church then being turned on. With good lectors, cantors, PA systems, and user-friendly sung psalm responses, it is perfectly possible for the people to participate well without the need to refer to worship aids.

    1. When I read Paul’s comment, “With good lectors, cantors, PA systems, and user-friendly sung psalm responses, it is perfectly possible for the people to participate well without the need to refer to worship aids”,
      I felt validated in the work we have been doing at our parish over the past three years. We decided that materials which were available for use at the Vigil prooved to be inadequate for our community. We set about the task of composing our own psalms for each of the readings, including Psalm 118 prior to the gospel. We wanted that setting to support a true procession of the Book of the Gospels that would also be an awakening of the “Alleluia”. In addition, we traditionally celebrate the Vigil bilingually.
      It has proven to be the most successful liturgical projects we have undertaken and it has led to developing our own (original) three year psalter. Since then, all of the elements of the Vigil have been reviewed and revised to the approval of our assembly.

      1. Thank you, Ron. My most successful Easter Vigil psalm settings were those which were designed to be sung in pitch darkness, so the assembly would need to be able to pick up everything instantly by ear.

  6. Some other thoughts – was struck again at our parish vigil that there was almost no differences in light or even sound/music to actually show the change in focus; emphasis; etc.
    Suggest that very few know; much less, are concerned about superseccesionism – really?
    From a very lay point of view:
    Light – best done in darkness with the people of God holding lit candles (key)
    Exsultet – again, emphasize LIGHT
    Readings – shift to focus on our salvation history; our stories of our common journey (so much for supersecessionism) – if you can, turn on lights to 50%
    Gloria – using music/sound and lights including altar candles lit, turn everything on and up
    Epistle/Psalm/Alleluia/Gospel – focus on the complete journey as told by all readings (understand that few churches do all readings but more and more, see a shift to minimalism, speed, let’s get to the baptisms if parish as RCIA
    Do a Gospel Procession
    Do sprinklings
    Some idle thoughts

    1. I would suggest that those of us formed in the post-WW2 consensus era (where everyone who was anyone knew that Anti-Semitism Is Bad) need to become more aware of the consequences of its breakdown, among which is the revival of a kind of anti-Jewish sentiment that finds superseccesionism a congenial hook, and that more of the Catholic faithful are vulnerable to it than we may prefer to imagine.

  7. Years ago we did the Old Testament readings in darkness or semi-darkness, but we now do them with the lights on. The Exsultet is still sung in darkness, which in my view is more effective.

  8. How very interesting. We are a place that tries very hard to get it right …. and yet we still have darkness until the Gloria. I guess we have just not spotted those rubrics among all the others.
    I have to say that having the first bit in darkness is very effective – despite the danger of slipping into a “OK kids, lets all turn the lights out and imagine we know nothing of what we know” mentality.
    Yes I have found the positioning of the lighting of the candle and Exsultet a bit strange – lets all celebrate the resurrection, now lets all forget about that until the Gloria.
    I will forward this discussion to our clergy.

  9. “. . . the danger of slipping into a “OK kids, lets all turn the lights out and imagine we know nothing of what we know” mentality”

    There’s a reason the liturgy is not linear in that way … it’s not a historical reenactment. That’s why the rubrical requirements aren’t a problem needing to be solved.

    1. The requirements are not obstacles. They are red, as in Rubies, as in precious. Thanks for writing, Karl, that they are not a problem needing to be solved.

      1. Well, thanks, though I’d not go as far as that!

        While I am far from an adherent of rubricism, and certainly don’t find salvation in rubrics, I am quite aware of how itchiness with, and ignorance of, rubrics can rather quickly become much like the thing it supposedly cures. Every time we’re having to reevaluate, reconsider, renegotiate, revise, reinforce, et cet., rubrics, we’re less likely to allow our being and participation in the divine liturgy to percolate because we’re more inclined to stay stuck at the surface, rearranging things until We Get Them Just Right Enough To Pierce Our Boredom And Finally Energize Our Discipleship. I don’t have a magical view of rubrics and missals; rather, I have a realistic view of human nature, especially as formed in Western consumerist culture. I tend, therefore, to be skeptical about chronic improvisation, because our erstwhile artists are rarely given the charism of ritual improvisation, and we.certainly don’t select for it. The best liturgical improvisers appear to possess the lightest of touches, and don’t indulge chronically. Others’ mileage may vary.

  10. My previous parish had the advantage of a versatile lighting system as well. We created a preset scheme that gradually illuminated the church, but highlighted sections as the readings progressed; subtle uplighting on the high ceilings for Genesis (dawning); full lights at the font as of Isaiah 55, etc.

    I just shared this article with my current pastoral staff; hopefully, we’ll have an “illuminating” discussion of this issue for next year.

  11. Rubrical requirements have always held an important place in the way in which we celebrate, but time changes some things. In the past, the strict adherence to rubrics was thought essential to a valid and licit celebration of Mass. Those were the days when we spoke of reading, hearing, and saying the Mass. The days before the reform one of the purposes of which was to breathe new life into the celebration of the sacred mysteries. While rubrics may not be lightly tossed aside, there are local customs which arise which in no way threaten the integrity, let alone the validity or liceity of the celebrations whether of the Easter Vigil or any other sacramental rite. By leaving the house lights off while bathing the ambo with the light of the paschal candle and sufficient electric light by which the lessons of our salvation may be proclaimed helps people to grasp in more dramatic fashion the true presence of God in his Holy Word. When at the conclusion of the reading from Ezekiel the people’s candles are ignited from light taken from the paschal candle and the sound of the Gloria once again fills the church, this forms an important prelude to the turning on of all the church’s electric lights and the lighting of the altar candles. The focus during the singing of the Exultet which involves choir, cantors, and the assembly is on the bright light of the Paschal Candle. Does this arrangement in any way disturb the principle that as the church believes so does she pray? I don’t even remember how this format was initiated but it was decades ago and it facilitates the praise and worship of the people on this most holy night.

  12. Let me add a historical tidbit. In the pre-1955 Roman Missal, one of the early rubrics for the Easter Vigil says “omnia luminaria ecclesiae exstinguuntur, ut de igne benedicto postmodum accendantur” (all the lights of the church are exstinguished, so that they may be lit from the blessed fire afterwards), giving a reason for extinguishing the candles in the church. A later rubric, which was within the Exsultet, said “Hic accenduntur lampades” (at this point, the lights are lit). The references are to lights with flames, e.g., candles and torches and oil lamps. There was never any reference to electric lights in the older or current Missal. In the current Missal, the people light their candles after the second “Light of Christ.” The rubric after the third “Light of Christ” suggests that the light from the Easter Candle should spread to candles “throughout the church” but there is no mention that all (or any) electric lights need be turned on. I agree that we should creatively make use of modern illumination to help the liturgical experience, given that the rubrics don’t mention electric lights at all.

  13. The post-Vatican II reform of Easter Vigil introduced a change whose implications I do not think that we have yet thought through.
    The rite both before and after the Pian reform preserved the Blessing of the Water (and the newly-introduced Renewal of Baptismal Promises) between the “Prophecies” and the “Mass.” I suspect that this practice reflected the fact that in antiquity part of the clergy and the initiates left to go to a separate baptistery at some point for the first two sacraments of initiation. How long they were gone would depend upon how many initiates there were. It has been suggested that the reason why the readings grew in number was the need to keep the people in church busy.
    When the clergy and neophytes returned, they were greeted joyfully, and the Gloria, collect and New Testament readings occurred. This unfolding of the ritual would also explain why even the Pian reform started in purple vestments (except for the deacon of the Exsultet) and the later change to white ones along with the unveiling of the statues during the Gloria.
    The movement of the rites of initiation in the post-Vatican II reform shifts that unfolding remarkably. The initiates now hear the New Testament before the rites occur; vestments are white from the beginning; there is no unveiling. The Gloria now interrupts the flow of the Liturgy of the Word since there is not outburst of joy at the arrival of the neophytes; instead it seems to account for the charge of supersessionism.
    The solution would be to acknowledge that the paradigm has changed. The Liturgy of the Word could flow smoothly if the Gloria were moved to later–during the sprinkling?–and the outburst of joy accompanied the Proclamation of the Alleluia?
    What such changes would mean to the lighting cues is not clear. What does seem clear is that we are trying to run new software on an outdated system.

  14. Thank you, Michael — I have been saying this for years! Readings from the OT are to be read in the Light of Christ and the Resurrection.

  15. The reason for this “confusion” is from the use of electric light – or “electric sunshine”. None of the readings, nor the Exsultet, are proclaimed in “darkness”….both the paschal candle and people’s candles are lit. Turning on electric lights kills the whole thing, so best to minimise the use of electricity for the whole celebration and rely as much as possible on various kinds of lamps.

    Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican turn on the electric lighting at the Gloria which doesn’t follow the rubrics.

    If we simply use non-electric lamps for the Vigil, lighting them at the right time, the sense of vigil is maintained throughout the whole celebration.

    1. “Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican turn on the electric lighting at the Gloria which doesn’t follow the rubrics.”

      Really? That’s not quite what I’ve recalled seeing.

  16. Here’s the Paschal Vigil from the Vatican this year. The procession with Paschal candle starts around the 4:30 mark. The pope’s candle is lit after the first versicle and response (is that a papal thing?). The candle gets to the altar at about the 10:05 mark with the third versicle and response at which point the lights in the basilica go on.

    1. Interesting. Thank you for sharing.

      It looks like they turn on more lights during the Gloria (47:30).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *