Lights at Easter Vigil

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q:  I’m writing to learn more about your perspective and interpretation of a particular rubric (Roman Missal, Easter Vigil, #17) as referenced and outlined in a Liturgy and Life article (Pro Tip #1) recently published by Diana Macalintal. I’m curious as how one arrives at such strong statements as were made that all of the electric lights should be turned fully on at this point of the liturgy when the inference is that the light of the Paschal Candle is the light that is sourced and passed and is that which illumines the worship space. As the rubric states, “lights are lit,” and not the “lights are turned on.”


A:  I’m looking at the rubrics of the Easter Vigil and drawing conclusions directly from them. Here’s what the missal says about the beginning of the Vigil (7), the moments preceding the Exsultet (17), and the singing of the Gloria (31).

  7: “The lights of the church are extinguished.”   – Luminaria vero ecclesiæ extinguuntur.

17: “And lights are lit throughout the church, except for altar candles.” – Et accenduntur lampades per ecclesiam, exceptis cereis altaris.

31: “…the altar candles are lit.” – …accenduntur cerei altaris.

That’s all the direction we get. In fairness, all those Latin words for lights can refer to candles.

Luminaribus is how the missal describes the candles that servers do not hold when the Passion is proclaimed on Palm Sunday (21).

Lampas is the word the GIRM uses for the sanctuary light (316).

Cereus is the word the GIRM uses for the paschal candle (277), the seven candles lighted for mass with a bishop (117), processional candles (119), and the candles in the gospel procession (175).

None of these words explicitly refers to electrical lights.

But here’s how I put the pieces together: #7 has to include electrical lights; otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. #31 refers only to altar candles, as backed up by #17. #17 has to include the electrical lights because there’s no other reference to them.

As I explain in Glory in the Cross, the lighting of altar candles at the Gloria is a holdover from the preconciliar Vigil, which separated the service into two parts: the Vigil and the Mass. Mass did not begin until the altar candles were lit at the Gloria. Everything before that was the Vigil. This was reinterpreted after the Council, and the entire service is considered mass. This became even more explicit in the third edition of the missal with the introduction of the sign of the cross and greeting at the beginning of the service.

And here’s how I interpret the meaning. The light of Christ is doing more than lighting candles. It’s actually lighting up the electricity as well. The single flame bursts into full light, and the paschal candle is praised as its source.

Otherwise, you have to account for why the light of Christ didn’t quite eliminate all the darkness inside the church. And if you turn on the lights later, you have to explain why some other source of light suddenly took effect.

The Vatican does not always follow its own rubrics, but this is precisely what happens at its Vigil. After the third “The Light of Christ,” all the electrical lights in the basilica come on.