Here is an oldie but goodie. Updated for 2010.
From a reader:
There is a parish in our diocese that is advertising (in the bulletin and even in the diocesan paper) a 4:00 p.m. Easter Vigil. Are there ANY circumstances which allow for such an exception to the rule that the Easter Vigil may not begin until after sundown?
I seem to remember a clarification from Rome which stipulated that beginning an Easter Vigil at the same time as anticipated Masses is "reprehensible."
I cannot think of any exceptions. Given the time of year and daylight savings time) 4:00 pm is simply too early. It is still too light out.
Since this night is the most important of the year, you want to get it right. Right?
That includes the time when the rite is to begin.
The symbolism of the light in darkness is important to the meaning of the rite. And the purpose of our liturgical rites is to have an encounter with mystery. The signs and symbols are important.
This Vigil (which is by definition a nighttime action) is not like the normal "vigil" celebrated in anticipation of a all other Sundays or Holy Day. It has a unique character in the whole liturgical year.
The rubrics for this rite, as found in the 2002MR says this is "nox", night.
3. Tota celebratio Vigliae paschalis peragi debet noctu, ita ut vel non incipiatur ante initium noctis, vel finiatur ante diluculum diei dominicae. The whole celebration of the Paschal Vigil ought to be completed at night, both so that it does not begin before the beginning of night, or and that it finishes before dawn of Sunday.
As your Lewis & Short Dictionary will indicate perago is "to complete", in other words, "to get through it". Vel…vel… is the equivalent of et… et..
To repeat: the Vigil is to
a) gotten through entirely during nighttime
b) begun after nightfall
c) complete before dawn
4. Missa Vigiliae, etsi ante mediam noctem celebratur, est Missa pachalis dominicae Resurrectionis. The Mass of the Vigil, even celebrated before midnight, is the Easter Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection.
In most cases you don’t have to say that a vigil Mass is for the following Sunday. But the unique character of the Rite, different from the Sunday morning Mass, needs to be clarified. Also, the time midnight is explicitly mentioned. This is the traditional time to begin the Vigil Mass rites.
Also, 1988 Circular of the CDWDS called Paschale solemnitatis dealt with the time of the beginning of the Vigil,
78. This rule is to be taken according to its strictest sense. Reprehensible [!] are those abuses and practices which have crept in many places in violation of this ruling, whereby the Easter Vigil is celebrated at the time of day that it is customary to celebrate anticipated Masses.
"Reprehensible"… get that? And that from a year long before this Pope.
We must drill into initium noctis.
This is the time when daylight is no longer visible. It is after nightfall.
The Jews made all sorts of distinctions about sundown and twilight and night. So do we when considering liturgical times.
The earliest time we can start the Vigil is initium noctis. What does this mean?
Nightfall is when sunlight is no longer part of the illumination of the sky.
Sunset is when the upper edge of the sun finally sinks the horizon. This is what the Jews called sunset. There is "civil" twilight, that is, when the sun’s center is 6 degrees below the horizon.
Of course there is still a lot of light from the sun in the sky at that time. For Jews the evening twilight lasted until a few stars appeared. Then it was night. They had to figure these things out so that they knew, for example, how far they could walk to get to places, etc., before the sabbath fell.
We can go by that, but perhaps more helpful in this day of astronomical precision and electric lights is to go by astronomical twilight.
Astronomical twilight is, techincally, when sunlight is no longer illuminated the sky. That is a fancy way of saying, "it’s night".
Astronomical twilight is helpful because we can use the calculations of the Naval Observatory to figure out when astronomical twilight takes place.
Your nightfall (astronomical twilight) will be a little different depending on your location (latitude and longitude, elevation, etc).
Exempli gratia let’s say you are in the umbilicus mundi, that is, where I was born, Minneapolis, MN.
Summon a chart from the Naval Observatory for Minneapolis and find the beginning of astronomical twilight for 3 April (yes, 3 April – 4 April is Easter Sunday and we want the Vigil which is Saturday night 3 April). Your results: 2043h + 0100 hour for daylight savings, which is 2143 or 9:43 pm
In Vatican City (41° 54′ 10.8″ N, 12° 27′ 7.2″ E) it would be 1838h. + 0100h for daylight savings.
Okay, clearly it is the Church’s intention that the rites begin when it is dark. There can be a little flexibility. There might still be traces of twilight but it would be black in church with the lights out, etc.
The point is: let there be darkness!
So… if by 4:00 pm where you are night has fallen, fine! Start the Vigil Mass. If not, – and I will bet it hasn’t in most places people inhabit – then 4:00 pm is too early.
And, given how important the Vigil is, it is a grave liturgical abuse to begin Mass at 4:00 pm. Didn’t that document say "reprehensible"?