Q. Why does the Easter Vigil begin after sundown and yet Saturday evening Mass the rest of the year can begin as early as 4 p.m.?
A. This is a very good question. Thank you for asking it. The simple answer is that the Easter Vigil, which includes a raging fire, which represents Jesus rising from the dead to dispel the powers of sin and darkness, recounts the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The symbolism of the Easter Vigil, which is the highest liturgy of the year, is incredible and rich and full.
The Easter candle – the oversized candle that every Catholic Church in the world has – represents Jesus risen from the dead. Again the Easter fire represents the power of Jesus’ resurrection to dispel sin and darkness. Therefore the meaning of these elements are richly interpreted and understood in the darkness….”the light (Jesus) in the Easter Vigil is the most noble of all solemnities.” Therefore, the symbolism is best understood in the darkness.
The Saturday evening Mass throughout the remainder of the year is ordinarily called the “anticipated Mass” for Sunday. Therefore, Saturday evening Mass “counts” or fulfills one’s Sunday obligation.
There is also a difference between what is called the anticipated Mass for Sunday and a Vigil Mass.
A Vigil Mass is usually for a Solemnity, for example, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, the Ascension etc. A Vigil Mass has its own propers (that is, readings, prayers, etc.). Most Saturday anticipatory Masses use the propers of the following day – Sunday.
The Vigil Mass or anticipated Sunday Mass has its roots in Judaism. The Jewish method of reckoning days was one sundown to the next. Thus the Sabbath began at sundown the previous day. In the Catholic Church, the Vigil or anticipated Mass has been extended to include Masses celebrated in the late afternoon or early evening of the previous day, all of which meet our Sunday/Holy Day obligations. For those old enough to remember, before Vatican II, there were no anticipated Masses on Saturday evening.
In the Diocese of Lincoln any Mass after 4 p.m. Saturday fulfills one’s Sunday obligation. An interesting note – while anticipated Masses are permitted, they are not obligatory. If I am correct, anticipated Masses were originally intended for those who could not attend Mass on Sunday, e.g., fire and rescue personnel, law enforcement, health care professionals, etc.
As a pastor, I hope that Sunday – the day of Jesus’ resurrection – holds preeminence in an individual and family’s life and that we do not attend the Saturday evening Mass just to “get it out of the way” or “to fulfill an obligation.” Sunday should be the preeminent day of worship. There are a very ample number of Masses celebrated all across southern Nebraska on Sunday in which families could attend Mass and still be able to do the things that they want to do in keeping with the celebration of Sunday.
This question was answered by a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln. Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.