QUAERITUR: When should the lights go on at the Easter Vigil?

From a priest reader:

During the Easter Vigil in the ordinary form, when are the lights of the church supposed to be turned on?

Ourcustom has been to turn the lights on after the third "Christ our Light"; the rubrics in the English (Canadian) Sacramentary  tell us to do as much. However, some interpret the latin rubric as referring not to the electric lights but to the dedication candles on the walls of the Church. Any thoughts?


In one place where I have been many times for the Triduum – once well known for sound liturgy – the lights were turned on in three stages… just before the Exsultet, some at the Gloria, the rest at the Alleluia.

Perhaps some readers can chime in.

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  1. John Enright says:

    If memory serves me well (there’s no assurance there!), the Pope’s Easter Vigil last year was televised on EWTN, and the electric lights were lit after the third “Christ our Light,” but I’m not 100% certain of this. Blame old age!

  2. Mike says:

    I think it makes sense to turn the lights completely on at the singing of the Gloria. This would seem to make sense because that is when the candles are also lit. We have the custom in our parish–which is known for it’s excellent liturgies–to turn only some lights on after the Exsultet for the readings and the rest on at the Gloria. It’s quite beautiful when the Gloria begins with the ringing of the bells and then the lights come on.

  3. Noel says:

    We only light candles at second Lumen Christi, then partial electric lighting for readings and then in full glory at Gloria

  4. SMJ says:

    We turn some lights on at the Exsultet, and all of them at the Gloria (we also take out the veils of the statues at this moment!).

  5. Victor says:

    In our parish, after the third “Lumen Christi” (we always sing it in Latin), all the candles are lit. In the church illuminated by candlelight, the Exsultet and the Old Testament readings are read. At the Gloria, all the electric lights are lit. As far as I know, this is what the Missale demands. In St Peter’s, they do it differently because with candlelight only, nothing would be visible at the TV screens. I do not regard this a sufficient reason, but there you go…

  6. Sid says:

    Unless the rubric says differently, I’d have some of them turned on after the Exsultet, the rest at the beginning of the Gloria (with the bells and the return of the organ).

    The transition from darkness to light is the key to the Easter Vigil, the most important Mass of the year and, following the General Instruction about the calendar, the center of the Tridum (The Triduum: from the evening Mass of Holy Thursday [actually the beginning of Good Friday] to Solemn Vespers on Easter Sunday.)

    The Easter Vigil is the Christian Passover (it ought be called in English “Passover” instead of the pagan name “Easter”): On Holy Thursday, we commemorate the new cultus; on Good Friday the lamb is slain; and at the Easter Vigil we put the Blood of the Lamb on our door posts and lintels (our body), eat the Passover meal, and then by the light (the full moon, the bonfire, and our candles [or lamps]) we flee Egypt, go though the Red Sea, and also cross Jordan into the Promised Land. (the OT Passover may have had as one of its origins the covenant renewal and site of circumcision at Gilgal, just on the other side of the Jordan).

    The Easter Vigil is the Christian Eleusian Mystery. It is the best liturgical prep for our own deaths and transit from life to the New Life. It tells us, as we go from darkness to light, from silence to glorious sound, from out street clothing to white garments, what our deaths will be if we die in the state of grace.

    Nothing is more important than the Easter Vigil. He who goes through it fears death no longer (provided it’s done correctly; in southern MD 2003 I saw an appalling Easter Vigil).

  7. stgemma0411 says:

    Every time I have ever served/MC’d an Easter Vigil, when I was in the seminary assigned to a parish, it was always the lights on at the Gloria. There was no light, save for the easter candle and then the church was illumined by the light that spread from the easter candle, so there was a gradual increase in light, in the church. And then the full church was brought into its fullest light with the Gloria. Never seen it done any different, in my life. And that includes many different parishes…at least 5 different dioceses and 2 different countries. Not saying it’s right…just saying that I’ve never seen it done any different than that.

  8. Origen Adamantius says:

    At the second Christ our light, we begin to light the candles held by the congregation so that they are lit by the third Christ our light. The electric lights remain off until the gloria, with the exception of those necessary for the readings and prayers.

  9. Mark S says:

    In my parish, the electric lighting is turned on at the Exultet, and the candles (the normal candles relating to the altar, plus the votive candles) are lit at the Gloria. This allows lighting for the congregation to follow the readings, yet provides the symbolism of the Easter Vigil Mass itself being the start of the Easter season.

  10. The rubrics state rather clearly that the lights are to be turned after the third singing of “Christ our Light, thanks be to God.” I don’t have the number handy but you’ll find it at the bottom of the page.

  11. Sid says:

    Mark at 1024,

    Your view as to when the lights ought be turned on may be a good one, but the rationale oughtn’t be “to follow the readings”. The readings and psalms ought to be heard, not silently seen in print.

    The Easter Vigil is a glorious parade of symbols. After the symbols of darkness/light – and piggybacking upon this dichotomy – come the symbols silence/word. To be remembered is that the Easter Vigil incorporates the Office of Readings of the Divine Office for Easter Sunday. And it is just about the only place in the OF Office where the EF’s extensive readings and psalms are maintained. The Easter Vigil readings are also the last and the climatic instruction of the baptismal candidates. We Catholics, likely a bunch of what our educational bureaucrats call “visual learners”, are often faulted for ignoring the hearing of the Word. Not so at the Easter Vigil. And the art of reading aloud to others ought be revived anyway.

    I confess that in the EF I use a missal. Yet in the OF, in the vernacular, printed matter is at best extraneous – to say nothing of the high pitched static heard when 1000 cheap paper missalettes are turned. The priest’s missal and the lectionary ought be the only print present.

    I’ll grant you that modern man has problems with sitting silently and listening. Not so in the recent past. The Lincoln Douglas debates lasted three hours! – and without any charts, diagrams, pictures, moving tickertape (CNBC), flashing lights, or “info babes” – the two men among our ugliest politicians. In 1854, they debated for 7 hours. The debates covered complex topics with complex arguments (Dred Scott, the Kansas Nebraska Act, Is the US a compact among the states or an organic union?, etc) and they used long, complex sentences – all attentively and cheerfully heard by common folk. Neil Postman observed that a TV audience wouldn’t be able to follow the Gettysburg Address.

    So along with modern man’s indifference to symbols, and his inability to celebrate (vs. to party and to entertain), the Easter Vigil has its problems – problems to be overcome.

  12. Karen Russell says:

    In our parish the lights are turned on at the Gloria. Before that we have the candles which the parishoners hold (lit from the Paschal candle during the “Light of Christ”–I can’t remember which singing), and a small reading light at the lecturn for the Exsultet and Old Testament readings. And one year my son (one of the senior altar servers) was delegated with a flashlight to make sure the readers got up and down the steps safely.

  13. In the Birmingham Oratory where we do the vigil in ‘reform of the reform’ Novus Ordo, the church is in darkness with only candlelight and reading lamps from the blessing of the fire, the Lumen Christi entry, through the Exultet and the prophecies. The moment when the lights are all turned on is at the intonation of the Gloria in Excelsis followed by organ fanfare and full Gloria during which the statues are unveiled. This is a most wonderful and dramatic moment alluding to the resurrection, and it is probably the best way of doing it in the new rite.

  14. TJ Murphy says:

    From the USCCB website, it says:
    “The places at which the proclamation, Light of Christ, are sung now differ from what was in the previous Missale.
    The new places are: at the door of the Church (after which the priest lights his candle), in the middle of the Church (after which all light their candles), and before the altar, facing the people. The Missale instructs the deacon to place the candle in a large candle stand prepared either next to the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary (EV, no. 17). The lights of the Church are then lit with the exception of the altar candles which are lit just before the intonation of the Gloria (EV, nos. 17 and 31).”

    Although this is what is stated, my parish remains in darkness with the exception of the Paschal Candle (and individual lights needed for the cantor/choir)until the Gloria when all the lights are turned on.

    I always understood that the lights should not be put on in segments but rather all at once to fully symbolize the resurrection….Christ did not rise a little at a time it was One moment, he was dead then he was alive.

  15. cosmas & damian says:

    This is what I have experienced: total darkness as the candle is brought in with the people following. Light is passed from the Pascal Candle to the people. By the time the Candle is at the entrance to the sanctuary and the people are filtering into the pews the whole church is aglow in the warm light of a sea of individual tapers. Usually a light of some sort at the ambo for the proclamation of the Exultet so that the Deacon or Priest can see it. (I would imagine it quite a feat to memorize the entire proclamation. It also seems that a hand-held taper wouldn’t be adequate save for those with extraordinary night vision.) This has worked best in my experience when there is some sort of reading light at the ambo rather than a light that is part and parcel of the church lighting system. After the Exultet a bare minimum of lights, maybe to enable the choir to do the responsorial psalms. I agree wholeheartedly with Sid that the Scriptures should be heard rather than read. But maybe this is a concession to the hard of hearing or those who are so visual that they honestly can’t follow long readings aurally. I have met those types in my life! Finally ALL the lights come on and the altar candles (and any other candles, such as the dedication candles) are lit when the Gloria begins and the bells (on the altar and in the belfry) are rung. O what a glorious moment! It never fails to send chills up and down my spine!

  16. Robin Ward says:

    The rubrics make a distinction here between light in the church and the lighting of lamps –

    Before the Vigil begins: Luminaria vero ecclesiae extinguuntur

    After the third Lumen Christi: Et accenduntur lampades per ecclesiam, exceptis ceries altaris

    So the lighting of lamps before altars and images is envisaged at this point, not necessarily the main lighting of the church.

  17. After Come ye receive the Light, when the priest lights our candles in an otherwise completely dark church, we exit the church and process around it three times, singing Christos aneste! (Christ is risen!) and when we re-enter the church, it is brilliantly lit.

  18. Hugh Somerville-Knapman OSB says:

    Rightly or wrongly, at Douai Abbey we always turn on the lights, and ring the tower and hand bells, after the intoning of the Gloria. It has a very powerful effect at that point in the liturgy.

  19. I have been to Easter vigil Masses at three different churches, all with various degrees of liturgical orthodoxy, and all have done the lights in the exact incremental way you described.

  20. Nathaniel says:

    In one place where I have been many times for the Triduum – once well known for sound liturgy

    That is sad to hear. I guess brick by brick can also go in the opposite direction.

  21. Charivari Rob says:

    Usually we have as many people as possible crowded in the back of the nave and the vestibule. The church is in darkness, other than perhaps a flashlight if Father needs it during the kindling of the new fire and preparation of the Paschal candle. The new fire is passed along to the congregation, holding small candles. I forget how far we got along last year before the lights were brought up in the church.

    I don\’t know what we\’re going to see this year. Holy Saturday has (every year I\’ve lived in this parish) brought buckets of rain or gales of wind to the little plaza in front of our hilltop church. So, it\’s usually difficult to light and keep lit long enough, unless it\’s so easy to light that we\’re blowing sparks and embers onto parishioners and all the neighboring (wood-frame) houses. Then, our congregation has good numbers of both older folks with walkers and little kids – a great recipe for tripping over each other in the dark. Finally – we realized that we really went quite a long time into the vigil before turning on the electric lights – based on the amount of time spent Easter morning (and into the week) cleaning wax drippings (the personal candles) from the floor and pews.

    So, we might adjust things a bit. New priest this year, too, so he might have a different perspective than his predecessor.

  22. Mary Ann says:

    Lights above the sanctuary are turned on after the Exsultet is sung. The remaining lights are turned on and altar candles lit when the Gloria is chanted.

  23. Liam says:

    Just before the Exsultet, except for the altar candles, which are lit at the Gloria. The rubrics otherwise don’t provide for the kind of gradual enlightenment practiced in many places.

  24. Simon says:

    With the exception of hand-held candles and a small lamp for the priest to sing the Exultet, we have only ever turned the lights imediately after the Gloria has been intoned and during the period when the bells are rung (which can also disguise the clicking of the electric light switches!).

  25. Fr. Guy says:

    The rubrics are clear that the lights come on after the third Lumen Christi. In the missal it says (#14.) “When the deacon arrives at the altar, he faces the people and sings a third time: Christ our light. All answer: Thanks be to God. Then the lights in the church are put on”. At the Gloria there is only a reference to the altar candles being lighted.

    That’s why they do it that way at the Vatican rather than any logistical need. Since the altar candles are lit at the Gloria I have seen many places leave any altar lighting/sanctuary lighting turned off until then as well. However, the Exultet and the Liturgy of the Word is not supposed to be done in darkness or by candlelight. The Exultet is the proclamation that Christ is risen, not the Gloria. The symbol of Christ being risen is the abundance of light. I think too many people are trying to keep some darkness in order to give emphasis to the paschal candle or to the idea of waiting in darkness. But, to proclaim that Christ is risen in a mostly darkened church is simply ridiculous.

    I had a professor who used to put it this way: when you keep vigil for someone (i.e. wait up for a child to come home or for a friend who is arriving in the middle of the night) you don’t sit in the dark. You keep the lights burning so they know you are awake and that they are welcome. Similarly, after the symbolism of all the lights coming on to scatter the darkness we then keep vigil by hearing the story of our salvation re-told in the Scriptures. However, as I said above, since the singing of the Gloria is the moment when the “altar is lit” leaving any altar spotlights off until then seems to make good sense as well.

  26. Fr. Thomas says:

    My first Easter Vigil as a pastor was three years ago. Despite my experience at other parishes, I decided that the instructions in the OF Missal made sense. I chant the Exsultet myself in Latin. Considering the words being sung, it really only makes sense to do it in full light. The Church and the world are exulting in “tantis irradiate fulgoribus” and in “tanti luminis adornata fulgoribus.” Also, this is the “nox sicut dies illuminabitur.” Also, do not forget the eschatological dimension of the “beata nox, in qua terrenis caelestia, humanis divina iunguntur. Finally, the Exsultet begs that the light of the Paschal Candle may be “supernis luminaribus misceatur.” The lights of the Church sybolize the light of heaven into which the light of the candle is mixed. Having considered all of this, it now seems odd to me the chant the Exsultet in anything but the full lights of the Church.

  27. PubliusIII says:

    I notice that many of the proponents of lights on after the the 3rd Lumen Christi
    or after the Exultet are priests or rubricists. All that I can say is that
    in my experience whenever the lights come on at that point, it seems like
    a typical Western and modern way of truncating the rite, of hardly giving
    a sop to the idea of a night vigil for the Passover of the Lord from death to life.
    Someone above said that their professor noted that when one sits vigil for
    someone, one does not sit in the dark, one has the lights on until the person arrives.
    But come on, electric lights are only a hundred years old or less in most places.
    Obviously, electric lights have no place in traditionally liturgy or in a person
    of old waiting up for someone. Sitting in a candle lit sanctuary is so clearly
    effective, why slight it? I remember an essay by Lenin about how he had a plan to
    put electric lights in every church in Russia. The point was that in the pale
    light, the mystery and the devotion would be blasted away. So turn down the lights
    in our churches at all times, and leave them off until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil.

  28. Fr. Guy says:


    See the comment just above yours for the reason.

    The point of the story about waiting up for someone had nothing to do with whether or not your lights are electric. The point was that you LIGHT UP THE HOUSE and don’t sit in the dark.

    How is it ever possible to be “truncating the rite” when you are, in fact, following its instructions? As Fr. Z is fond of saying, “Say the black and DO THE RED”.

  29. PubliusIII says:

    Fr. Guy-

    I was just giving my impression as a guy in the pew. Suppossedly the restored
    Easter Vigil was to utilize the elements as the ancient liturgy did. Instead o
    of a private vestigial Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday morning, it would be a
    real easter Vigil with the lighting of a bon fire (I have only seen real bonfires
    at monastaries. It is suppossed to start, I think, as close to midnight as possible
    but everyone seems to start it as close to sundown as possible (or even befor)

    We are not suppossed to be sitting waiting for someone to arrive- like a
    worried parent, we are suppossed to be reliving salvation history, the people
    in darkenss see a great light, etc. etc.

    On a commonsensical level, it is almost absurd at the Easter Vigils where
    we have just lit our candels from the Lumen Christi and then someone barks- jextinguish
    your candles. Why? The orthodox keep their candles lit the entire three hour
    service and then bring them home! No matter what the black says, what is the
    meaning of giving the laity the “lumen Christi” and two senconds later, telling
    them to extinguish it? There just remains this fundamental inability to under-
    stand symbolism in our liturgy. And why extinguish the candle so quickly?
    There is no reason for it? Yea, maybe it will save on having to clean the
    wax drippings? Maybe it will reduce fire risk (but the Orthodoox are surviving
    and even get insurance for their churches).

    Any, that is what I meant be truncating the rite. Maybe it would have been
    more accurate to say impoverishing or short circuiting the rite.


    Publius III

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