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Lent Part 3: The Signs and Symbols of the Easter Vigil


The Easter Triduum begins on Holy Thursday and concludes with the Eucharist of Easter Sunday. The Easter Vigil, celebrated on Holy Saturday, begins at night with the lighting of the new fire, ideally outdoors, a reminder that we are moving from death to new life! In the early Church it was indeed a vigil; the congregation slept over for the three days of the Triduum; they came in and out of the assembly, stopping to eat and sleep as needed. Traditionally on Holy Thursday, the catechumens—those who had spent the Lenten season fasting and in penance seeking to enter the community—gathered with the deacon at a source of living water, such as a lake, river, or sea. The catechumens would be stripped naked and submerged in the water and held down, symbolic of dying to a former way of life. As each rose up from the water, the deacon would ask, “Do you believe in God the Father?” The catechumen would answer yes and be dunked again. Then he or she would be asked, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son?” The catechumen would respond, “I do,” and be dunked a third time. Finally, the catechumen would be asked, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” After responding, “I do,” the catechumen would come out of the water and be wrapped in a white, towel-like garment (the white symbolizing peace; baptism removes all sin and gives us peace). Then the deacon and the newly baptized would process into the midst of the community gathered in prayer with the bishop. The bishop would anoint the catechumen with oil in front of the community, confirming in public what had been done in private at the water source. The newly baptized and confirmed would then join the community for the remainder of the Eucharist. Remember that in our time during Lent the catechumens leave Mass before the Gospel and do not participate in the Eucharist. The sacraments of initiation would be then completed.
 
The Liturgy of the Word at the vigil is long; there are many readings telling the entire story of our salvation history. It starts with Genesis from the Hebrew Scriptures and ends with Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The gospel reading is the story of the resurrection.
 
Many churches celebrate the Easter Vigil in two or three languages to acknowledge the demographics of the community. We are one Church, one Body of Christ, no matter what our language.
 
The Easter Vigil is our most sacred liturgical feast and celebration. It celebrates God’s unconditional love and our long history of articulating that love in sign and symbol, word, and song. Knowing why these symbols are used encourages us to reflect on their physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual meaning in our daily lives. May we truly rejoice this Easter!
 
Sister Honora is the Assistant Director at RENEW and a Dominican Sister of Amityville, NY.

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