QUAERITUR: How early can the Easter Vigil begin?

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"?

QUAERITUR: How early can the Easter Vigil begin?
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29 Responses to QUAERITUR: How early can the Easter Vigil begin?

  1. AnAmericanMother says:

    8:26 p.m. will be astronomical twilight at our parish.

    The Vigil Mass is scheduled to begin at 8. There will be a certain amount of fussing around outdoors on the lower steps kindling new fire in a brazier with a flint and steel (and watching to see if anybody sets their hair on fire). By the time we get the Paschal Candle, the priests and deacons, the altar servers, the catechumens, and the choir into the church it will be “pert near” 8:26, as they say around here.

  2. Good thing Easter falls when it does, otherwise those of us in Alaska might be in trouble.

    I really enjoyed the in-depth treatment of daylight, something that is near and dear to us Alaskans especially as spring rolls around and we actually get some light :)

  3. Joan M says:

    Living in Trinidad, West Indies, as I do, where sunset will probably be about 6.20 pm and twilight is very short, our Vigil Mass, scheduled for 7:30 pm will start in full darkness.

    Being so close to the equator, there darkness sets in somewhere between 6:15 and 7:00, depending on the time of year.

  4. Huxtaby says:

    I agree – unfortunately/fortunately we are having ours at 5pm (EF). The priest celebrating the weekly EF Mass in the UK (north) does so in a “normal” Parish. Their Vigil is at 8pm so in order for us to have ours we have to have earlier so that we are well away in time for the establish Parish celebrations.

  5. jbalza007 says:

    Seems we have the same situation as described by Hux. One takes place at 8PM (Novus Ordo) but the EF one takes place earlier (4PM).

  6. Dr. Eric says:

    I know this is about the Easter Vigil, but if the Saturday evening Mass is allowed to count for the HDoO on Sunday and it is a Vigil- according to the information above- then why is there a 4 pm Mass on any given Saturday that counts for Sunday.

    I apologize if this is too far off topic.

  7. pattif says:

    My pp claims that, when he was a student in Rome in the latter years of Pope Paul VI’s pontificate, the curtains in St Peter’s would be drawn and the Easter Vigil celebrated at 5 p.m. Is there likely to be any truth in this tale, or should I file it in the same drawer as the recorded appearances of the Great Pumpkin?

  8. jbalza007 says:

    Just to clarify, that 4PM EF mass I mentioned is for the Easter Vigil mass — it is NOT a Sunday vigil mass.

  9. JosephMary says:

    It will be at 8pm here. But a couple of years ago in my liberal parish the vigil was scheduled early and someone squealed and the bishop actually stepped in and set the time for all parishes at a later time. This happened like the week before. I remember the cathecumens standing outside in their little white shifts and shivering. That was the year that was most like a wet tee shirt contest as they got dunked in the baptismal pool inthe cold church. And our overweight priest came out in little shorts and a tee shirt and went in the pond too. But those days are past for me! No more leaving in the middle of the liturgical free for all and being upset; I moved to a new diocese and those things are no happening.

    I recall my former pastor’s statement at the vigil: I know Mass is good when I am having fun and I am having fun tonight.

  10. What most people call a “vigil Mass” is actually known as a “Mass of anticipation.” The former has completely separate readings and texts from that Mass of the following day, which is the case with the Easter Vigil and the “Vigil of Pentecost” and others. The latter is what usually happens when a Mass is offered late Saturday afternoon to fulfill one’s obligation for Sunday. But the evening Mass in advance of Easter Sunday is a completely different situation, and as the good Father says, the rule that it begins after sundown is specific.

    In the USA, if I remember correctly, the bishops conference makes an announcement in the newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship, stating at what time sundown is supposed to occur, and the minimum period to wait after that time. Diocesan guidelines as announced during Lent are based upon that clarification.

  11. Our Diocese (LaCrosse, WI) always posts a time when it is permissible to begin the Easter Vigil.
    I don’t know if this a common practice; but we are not permitted to schedule earlier Masses when it is still light outside. Whether or not pastors follow this is beyond my knowledge; but the information is given in advance in the Chancery Bulletin.

  12. I’m a bit perplexed about EF Easter Vigil and Mass being so early; was not this put towards midnight in the 1955(?) reform of Easter Vigil (or maybe years earlier, I’m going by memory here and it fails me, at times)?

  13. Rachel says:

    I know of a pair of churches about an hour apart that share a pastor and both have the EF exclusively. One has an 8pm Easter Vigil and the other is scheduled for 4pm. I’m guessing the same priest has to preside at both vigils.

  14. kat says:

    What is so hard about this anyway? Why figure out what time the sun goes down? I’m guessing in just about all areas the sun should be down if you wait so that Mass begins at midnight. Our church always has the vigil at 10 pm, with the blessing of the new fire outside and then we enter, etc. etc. The Mass begins at midnight, as soon as all the rest of the vigil ends. Never any problem with darkness.

    It always kills our priest when the church office, or worse yet, the rectory, gets calls asking “what time is Midnight Mass”? (This comes from non-parishioners who may be visiting.) Uhm, well, Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

  15. Ed the Roman says:

    At 4:00PM local April 4th, the only places it could possibly be considered dark are in Antarctica, and there may still be twilight even at the Pole.

  16. Ed the Roman says:

    The twilight at the Pole would be days in vanishing, by the way.

  17. C. says:

    I’m a bit perplexed about EF Easter Vigil and Mass being so early

    The EF is not subject to the strict requirements of Paschale Solemnitatis, and it is common to find EF Easter Vigils which begin before sundown.

    Coincidentally, this helps parishes celebrate both Forms of the liturgy at Easter.

  18. C: Okay.
    Maybe I’m reading the rubrics a bit more rigidly; I’m not making any kind of criticism…I realize that the rites of Holy Sat/Easter Vigil were once celebrated early in the morning.
    But with the reforms in the ’50’s, I thought that a midnight Vigil/Mass was in order. Thanks.

  19. Martin_B says:

    I absolutly agree with you, that the time to be preferred for the beginning of the easter vigil is midnight.
    But People have to get to church (and back!) and we also don’t want the congregation to fall asleep over the readings. So, any time after nightfall and at least about two hours after the “normal” time for saturday evening mass should be okay.
    Concerning the time of nightfall I would give a little more leeway. Astronomical twilight is a time, where almost anyone (except astronomers) would talk about night rather than twilight. I’m always looking for the end of “nautical” twilight, which is just in between “civil” and “astromical” twilight.
    If you want to know your “exact” times, just go to “www.calsky.com”, enter your place, go to “calendar” and calculate “sun and moon” for one day beginning on easter saturday afternoon.
    (Father: the times for the sabine farm will be sunset 7:29 pm, “dusk” = end of nautical twilight: 8:34pm, end of astronomical twilight: 9:11 pm, beginning of astronomical twilght: 4:51 am, “dawn” = beginning of nautical twilight: 5:28 am and sunrise: 6:34 am.)

    The latter times are also of great importance, as some (but very few) parishes, including my own here in germany, celebrate their vigil on sunday morning. For this variant the knowledge of these times is of special importance, as you have to calculate the beginning of mass, so that the end will occur before dawn. (Something, my pastor will not listen to, due to “pastoral reasons”).

  20. Fr Martin Fox says:

    I am a little shocked to hear Vigils in the Extraordinary Form starting in the afternoon. I understand the problem of conflicting with a Vigil in the Ordinary Form. And I am not clear on the specific rubrics that apply to the EF. That said, it boggles the mind and requires clarification.

    What if the only time available for the Vigil were Noon? Nine AM? Where does one draw the line?

  21. Nathan says:

    Re Easter Vigil in the Extraordinary Form:

    My old handmissals, printed immediately after the Holy Week changes in the 1950s, were pretty clear in their notes about what I understand came from the rubrics. The Easter Vigil had to be started so that some part of the Mass took place at midnight.

    That begs the practical question, though–if the Easter Vigil is going to take place twice in a church (once TLM and one Novus Ordo), when can you schedule it? This is especially salient in situations where a Latin Mass community (e.g., The FSSP’s St Phillipine Duchesne Community in Kansas City, KS, who use a regular parish church, Blessed Sacrament, on top of the parish’s activities–I have fond memories of them) uses the facilities of a parish church. Do you not say the Easter Vigil if a rubrical time cannot be found in the space you’re using?

    In Christ,

  22. dcs says:

    It seems to me, if one parish is going to host two celebrations of the Easter Vigil, one Novus ordo and one TLM, that a “better” way to do it would be to celebrate one at 8:00 pm and one at midnight. However, I’m not sure what the rules governing the Easter Vigil in the old rite are. Prior to 1955 it would have been celebrated in the morning of Holy Saturday (just like one of the other Vigil Masses), which is why the Lenten fast ended at noon. After 1955 it would have been celebrated in the evening, but again, I don’t know whether it had to take place after dusk.

    Ironically, moving the celebration of the Triduum liturgies to the afternoon/evening had the side effect of moving Tenebrae (darkness) services to the morning – when it is usually light.

  23. Nan says:

    kat, last year Pope Benedict celebrated Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve…at 10:00.

  24. Daniel Latinus says:

    I believe the EF rubrics stipulate that the Vigil is to be scheduled so that the Mass begins at midnight. (EF Vigil Mass would begin with the singing of the Kyrie or the intonation of the Gloria.

    The question I ask is do the rubrics mean “clock” midnight or does it mean midnight 0000 hours) or midnight as determined before standardized clocks were introduced. By the latter standard, midinight might not occur until around 0200 hours.

    (The old St. Andrew Daily Missals have some interesting charts concerning the canonical day, based on the seasonal lengths of day and night. It seems the hours of day/night expanded or contracted depending on the time of year.

    OTOH, would it be permissible to schedule the Easter Vigil so that the Mass began at dawn? (As I write this, it occurs to me that the structure of the OF Easter Vigil doesn’t divide as cleanly between the Vigil and the Mass as the EF does.)

    Note on pre-1950s Easter Vigil: it was customary to celebrate the Easter Vigil at such a time in the morning that the Mass was begun at Noon. (But I have heard that some places held the Vigil both earlier and later on Holy Saturday, sometimes even at night.) I understand Tenebrae was still celebrated early on Holy Saturday morning. The Lenten fasts were concluded at Noon on Holy Saturday, and the Vigil Mass did not satisfy the obligation to attend Mass on Easter Sunday.

    In an account of the celebration of the Easter Vigil in a Cistercian monastery, it was reported that from the promulation of the reformed Holy Week services in 1955 until the Novus Ordo, Holy Saturday/Easter Morning was especially difficult. It seems the monks were pretty much in choir from the beginning of the Easter Vigil, through the Mass, through the Vigiliae (Matins in the Cistercian Rite), Lauds, the morning offices, the celebration of private Masses followed by Terce, and the conventual Mass, followed by Sext. The article said that by using some options in the OF, the Vigil, its Mass, and the Vigiliae could be combined and shortened, concelebration eliminated the private Masses, and the monks could take a break Easter morning.

  25. czemike says:

    Fr. Z. wrote: 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”?

    Given the spectrum of grave liturgical abuses in the Church today, I’m surprised this topic gets as much traction as it does. Then again the local Ordinary can give a dispensation for Vigil start times**. In the diocese neighboring mine in the big cities there is one parish with a super-early vigil Mass every Saturday (like 3pm) which is meant for folks who have a hard time making it to a later Mass or a Sunday morning Mass (older folks, mostly).

    Notwithstanding what should be done ideally, I don’t see how this is a big deal.

    ** Unless I’m mistaken, Sacrosanctum Concilium gives the bishop authority to change the liturgy and rules in his diocese subject only to after-the-fact review from Rome.

  26. jrotond2 says:

    As far as monks in choir are concerned, the reformed Holy Week also granted dispensations, de jure, from certain Offices. For example, on Holy Saturday, Compline is omitted by those participating in the Easter Vigil and likewise so are Matins and the full Lauds of Easter Sunday; in place of all of these offices is the short version of Lauds mandated to be sung just after Communion in the Easter Vigil Mass. Then, the obligation of the Office continues with Prime in the morning and so on.

    In the pre-1955 (or pre-1951) Holy Saturday, there was a shortened version of Vespers after the Communion of the Mass and then the Office continued with Compline on Holy Saturday (which was actually an Eastertide Office already).

    The 1955/1956 changes did create quite a liturgical aberration. Since post-1955, Easter Sunday is the only Sunday and only First Class Feast which does not have a First Vespers (nor a first Compline). The Vespers and Compline on Holy Saturday are penitential Offices of Holy Saturday. This is why the Easter Vigil has no basis to be celebrated at the same hour as a typical anticipated Sunday Mass. In the post-1955 reckoning, Lent is said to end at the time in which the Easter Vigil begins, no longer at noon and not at Vespertide. The actual rubrics in the 1956-1962 liturgical books state that the Vigil is to begin so that the Mass can start at Midnight, but that it could, for pastoral reasons, start as early as twilight, and certainly never earlier than sunset.

    If there is to be any future address of this situation, I think the Vigil should be moved to the time of Vespers and incorporate once again the short version of Vespers so that one could again speak of a First Vespers of Easter. Then the Office would continue with First Compline, Matins, and the full version of Lauds. It is lamentable that the beautiful Matins of Easter Sunday is almost never done because it is omitted by the Easter Vigil; one would have to celebrate that Matins during the rest of the Octave in order to experience it publicly.

  27. JCCMADD says:

    Maybe the pastor of the church has other thing s to do??/SO LET JUST GET IT OVER WITH!!

  28. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Our Easter Vigil starts at 8 pm and has done so for many years. This year that time’s just about at civil twilight for the Mile High City. I know our pastor has been asked to start earlier for the benefit of the ladies who set out the Easter Lillies and arrange other various decorations of the sanctuary. That has not occurred. This is the last year of his pastorate, so we’ll see what comes next.

  29. Greg Smisek says:

    The 1988 document’s incipit is actually “Paschalis sollemnitatis” (Notitiae 24 [1988] pp. 81-107):

    Paschalis sollemnitatis et totius Hebdomadae sanctae Ordo, a Pio XII primum instauratus inde ab annis 1951 et 1955, communiter ab omnibus Ritus Romani Ecclesiis cum gaudio receptus est.

    The congregation that issued the document was at that time the Congregation for Divine Worship. It would not be re-merged with the Congregation for the Sacraments to form the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments until later that year.

    One of the few correct citations online can be found in the Google Books text of CLSA’s New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (2000), p. 1435, footnote 44.