QUAERITUR: How early can the Easter Vigil 2011 begin?

Here is an oldie but goodie. Updated for 2011.

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.

sunset twilightAs 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.

sunset twilightThis 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, technically, when sunlight is no longer illuminates 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 for Astronomical Twilight from the Naval Observatory for your place and find the beginning of astronomical twilight for 23 April (yes 23, because the Sunday is 24 April)  My results were 2101 + 0100 hour for daylight savings, which means that the starting time can be 22:01.  Let’s call it 10:00 pm, to start the procession.

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,  outside trees, mountains, and buildings might be in the way, 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”?



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. mibethda says:

    Actually, civil twilight ends when the center of the sun drops to 6 degrees below the horizon. At that point, nautical twilight begins. [I talked about that. There is some interesting information in the post above, and an argument. Take a look.]

  2. Maltese says:

    “So… if by 4:00 pm where you are night has fallen, fine! Start the Vigil Mass” Maybe Alaska?

  3. You posted about this last year, and being in Alaska I was intrigued. Especially this year, since it is such a “late” Easter, what are we supposed to do? :) [That is a good question. I guess in that situation, unforeseen by the Romans, needs to be solved by commonsense.]

    Not that the church here or anyone “in charge” would follow such unimportant things as those silly [?]
    documents you mentioned above, I was just curious.

    Sorry for the snarkiness.

    [I didn’t realize people in Alaska don’t have to make sacrifices. Sorry for the snarkiness.]

  4. pberginjr says:

    I enjoyed this post last year too when it was about an 8 or 9PM start (and my parish started at 7), but 10 PM? While I agree in principle, and even in practice, what are the odds that a significant number of parishes heed this rule without a “direct order” as it were from the diocesan chancery? [I didn’t make this up.]

    Easter is probably the busiest day of the year for parish priests, especially those with multiple parish assignments. On the one hand, I suspect many would refuse to start a mass so late (even if a sizeable crowd would attend), with the masses the following day. On the other hand, we do still have midnight masses at Christmas, so why not at Easter too? It’s kind of like the transferring of holy days of obligation or Epiphany, Corpus Christi, etc. to Sundays. Is it really so much to ask that Catholics go to mass during the week once in a while (even two days in a row: Saturday-Sunday or Sunday-Monday)? Is it too much to have two late night masses a year? What an experience for candidates/catechumens to spend the whole day in prayer and anticipation of what they are to experience that evening. [I have had Vigil’s which begin at Midnight and early Mass the next day. I understand. I think Easter needs to be different.]

  5. fieldsparrow says:

    Your post brought up a slightly different question for me (they haven’t announced the time yet for our Easter Vigil, at which I will be confirmed(!), but judging by the range given I think it’s based on civil twilight).

    You mention that the nature of the Vigil Mass is different from the Easter morning Mass. Now, I am already planning to attend both, but a Catholic friend said the other day, “You do realize that the Vigil Mass ‘counts,’ right?” I said I wasn’t sure it did, and that I wanted to attend both regardless, but now I’m curious. I wonder if she is misapplying the rule that generally, Vigil Masses “count” for Sundays. Is that not true for Easter?

  6. chloesmom says:

    Our vigil (a parish just west of Montreal, Quebec) starts its vigil at 8 PM. It’s a “condensed” version and lasts less than 90 minutes. Sad.

  7. Ok, after doing what Father explained, where I live in Alaska, we could not have Easter Vigil.

    Here is a screen shot of where I live in Alaska:

    Notice how the date of Easter is: ///////
    Then note the bottom where it says: (//////: Sun continuously above twilight limit).

    AHHHHHHHH!!!! Does that mean that … well wait, what does that mean?

    FATHER, FATHER!! Help? [Nope. Sorry. You are consigned to the outer darkness. ….

    No. Wait. Then you would have no problem. Never mind.]

  8. EXCHIEF says:

    But but But Father….a late start is just soooooo inconvenient. And many people won’t come because they just can’t stay up that late. And what about the children, and the liturgical dancers will be cold and the clowns makeup will run and the guitar and trumpet players will be exhausted. Have you no heart Father?

  9. Philangelus says:

    If you want one more definition, I believe in Islam nightfall is defined as the time when you can’t see the difference between a black thread and a white thread by natural light. :-) [Interesting!]

    BTW, we used to define Lent as ending after the Vigil ended, if you attended the Vigil. Therefore the parish had a dessert buffet afterward for all of those who’d given up sweet things. :-) [Visit any rectory after the Vigil!]

  10. To those who think that is too late… take it up with God. He is the one who set up the day and night thing, seasons, tilt of the earth….

  11. Will D. says:

    In the Alaskan case, perhaps the vigil can start at the hour when the sun is lowest in the sky (or lowest below the horizon.) [Right on! I love that people are thinking about this rather than just saying “Do what you want.” Excellent. ] Of course, this is the kind of thing that Bishop should set down as a rule for the diocese, rather than leaving it up to the parishes.

    For my town the Astronomical Twilight hits at 2122, but my parish’s vigil is scheduled for 2030. I wonder if someone forgot to add the hour for daylight savings, or, more likely, just figured that it’d be late enough as it stood. Only the FSSP parish starts later, at 2200. [It ain’t 4 pm.]

  12. Fr Martin Fox says:

    The Archdiocese of Cincinnati directs, each year, that the Vigil cannot begin sooner than 30 minutes after sundown, which roughly corresponds to “civil twilight.” [A reasonable approach. I like astronomical twilight, but civil will do.]

    I have no problem having a late Vigil, but the Vigil is different from Christmas Midnight Mass in several ways: the Vigil, including all the readings and psalms, and the full initiation of catechumens, will easily go a good hour longer than Midnight Mass.

    The Vigil counts for Easter.

  13. APX says:

    Our vigil starts at 2300, and I wanted to go, but sadly with Easter being so late this year, it falls on moving weekend, so it does get too late. I have a full day of driving on terrible undivided highways that will be exceptionally busy. Fortunately our Easter Sunday Mass will fit in with my driving schedule, so I finally won’t have to miss it.

  14. Ed the Roman says:

    Alaska is not where you would have a problem. The Vigil is always after the Northern Hemisphere’s vernal equinox; day is longer than night by then.

    The Ross Ice Shelf is where you might have a problem.

  15. michelelyl says:

    The Diocese of Baker sends out the required ‘earliest’ time each year- we are starting at 8:30PM at my parish to make sure it is full darkness. We need to SEE the fire as it leaps up into the darkness…and the Easter Candle as the Pastor proclaims, “Christ Our Light”. This is my favorite celebration of the year!!!

  16. Common sense says that the Easter Vigil isn’t the Easter Vigil if it isn’t dark out. This is even more serious than Christmas Midnight Masses that start at 10 or 11 PM; at least it is still dark and cold outside at that time in December and the symbolism isn’t totally lost (although the purist in me still says midnight is midnight, not 10 PM). But an Easter Vigil when it’s still light out? And 4 PM! Disgraceful.

    The simple solution to such liturgical abominations is to boycott them completely. Go to a neighboring parish for the Easter Vigil, and don’t put an Easter envelope in the basket on Divine Mercy Sunday, either. Easter is the holiest day in the Christian calendar, and the Easter Vigil is the Mass par excellence of the year. It does not admit of messing around or cutting corners for the sake of convenience.

    For what it’s worth, I think that regular Sunday vigil Masses tend to start too early as well, but that’s another topic.

  17. My church will hold its Vigil Mass 13 minutes after the end of nautical twilight, or an hour and 15 minutes after sunset.

    These distinctions about twilight have an original practical significance. Civil twilight is typically the time when you can still read and walk without artificial illumination. Nautical twilight is when you can still see the horizon to use your sextant. Astronomical twilight still has enough sky light to ruin your long-duration photographic star exposures.

    I find that I can take decent night landscape photos until the end of nautical twilight. After that, my exposure times become too long to be practical (I lose patience and my tripod loses stability after about two minutes). French photographers have long valued l’heure bleue of twilight for distinctive images, whereas Americans prefer the Golden Hour of sunset. [Welllllll… okay.]

  18. Sandra_in_Severn says:

    This is when I miss not living in Germany the MOST. I sang twice at the Easter Vigil Mass at the Dom in Speyer. The Vigil services start at 9:30pm with a choir presentation of sacred music, that is usually an hour long. It gives time for people to come in and find seats in the pews, for the Catechumens to be assembled, and other groups to assemble. The Fire is kindled OUTSIDE of the Dom, and it is FULL DARK, usually after 10:30 pm. One year, the Mass was over at close to 3:30 am. It was just starting to dawn when I got to my friends’ house in Ramstein, where we were having a BIG Easter Breakfast. We were so tired, that it became a late Easter Lunch, after we napped a few hours.

  19. scaron says:

    8:30 for us in Burnt Hills, NY this year. Later than last year (8pm i believe) but of course Easter is later. All 7 readings plus the Epistle, and two people being baptized, making their first Holy Communion, and being Confirmed. A busy (and glorious) night at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

  20. Random Friar says:

    The bishop was kind enough to send a letter saying that the Vigil would start no earlier than a specific time, and if there were any exceptions, he himself would have to approve it.

    I appreciated it (I tend to be in bed anyway — when does it get dark around here?), and I think it would let the pastors have a solid, tangible thing they can show any parish staff that wants to go off half-cocked.

  21. Tom Ryan says:

    The Navy has looked into this:

    http://aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/easter.php [The Navy? Really?]

  22. tilden says:

    4pm is too early in Hammerfest, Norway, which has the northernmost Catholic church in the world. So I guess it’s too early everywhere.

  23. tilden says:

    Ah forget that. I wasn’t thinking straight.

  24. Joan M says:

    Well, we don’t have that problem here in Trinidad, seeing that even in June, July or August, we would have full darkness by 7:15 pm! And twilight is exceedingly short.

    I looked at the Navy site showing dates of Easter – as I am always interested in Easter falling on a specific date. My eldest son was born on March 30th. The year he was born (1970) that date was Easter Monday, so Easter Sunday was March 29th. He is now 41 and his birthday was never fallen on Easter Monday again!

  25. Maria says:

    Fr. John Zuhlsdorf says:
    4 April 2011 at 7:13 pm
    To those who think that is too late… take it up with God. He is the one who set up the day and night thing, seasons, tilt of the earth….

    That is cool Father! And so true

  26. Jim Dorchak says:

    Hey did I see Boditch’s astronomical tables referenced? I spent a lot years plotting from those tables on the sub I was on. It brings back memories. GHA, LHA, Sunrise / Set, Moon Rise/Set.

    Jim Dorchak

  27. frjim4321 says:

    Hmmm, think Cincy is still cutting it a bit short. We’ve been given guidelines from the dioese that the Vigil cannot begin before 9:30 PM EDT.

    With three catecumens it will be around midnight when we conclude.

  28. jflare says:

    Not quite on topic exactly, but:
    Has the Church ever considered enabling a parish to accomplish the entire Vigil Mass by candlelight?
    Yes, it’d be a logistical pain in the butt to figure out how to manage all the candles, but still..

    I always like the effect of the readings in the near dark church, then the candlelight service. It looks so cool to see the building go from almost dead dark to 3/4 light in about 5 minutes.
    ..And then they kick on the regular lights and the effect is killed in a few seconds.

    Couldn’t the Church arrange for a few extra candles on the altar for the priest and servers? Allow the choir to use small flashlights to read the music?

    How much do people REALLY need to see of the whole building, anyway?

  29. Marcin says:

    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.

    And so the Poles too watch for the first star appearing on the sky. For it’s the night when the watchful Christmas Vigil Meal can only start.

  30. Henry Edwards says:

    Has the Church ever considered enabling a parish to accomplish the entire Vigil Mass by candlelight?

    I suspect there was a time when every midnight Mass in every parish was celebrated by candlelight.

    Come to think of it, there must still be parishes located where there’s no electric power.

  31. Fr Martin Fox says:

    Fr Jim:

    The Archdiocese of Cincinnati would seem to be following the rule referenced by our genial host, practice by our elder brethren in Abraham: when a few stars appear.

    As far as Mass by candlelight…the rubrics say the lights come on at the placement of the Easter Candle. Of course, “lights” would be candles or oil lamps or Coleman lanterns, if there are no electric lights. In my prior assignment, the fixed custom was to wait until, I think, the Gloria, with the readers having to proclaim the Scriptures with help from flashlights, and the ushers had to have them as well. My feeling was that all this trouble was not occasioned by fidelity to the rubrics, but a deviation from them, so I couldn’t justify it. The rubrics say the lights go on.

    Here in Piqua, we turn on some lights, and turn on the rest at the Gloria. I’m not sure I should do that, but it seemed a minor concession. I have the servers light the candles at the altar at that point, which may even come from some official source, I cannot recall just now. Then I have the servers light the candles at the tabernacle once the Eucharist returns there after communion.

  32. Dr. Eric says:

    For those who complain that 22:01 is too late to start the Vigil need to take it up with the United States government who have given us the abomination that is Daylight Savings Time. Otherwise, the Vigil in Minnesota would be at 21:01- an hour earlier.

  33. Katherine says:

    Dear Lord, I remember when the Vigil was at 11:00 saturday morning (ugh!). And that was under the influence of the “liberals” who moved it up from 9:00 am because they thought by making it two hours closer to Saturday evening they were actually doing something meaningful!

  34. Katherine says:

    I always like the effect of the readings in the near dark church, then the candlelight service. It looks so cool to see the building go from almost dead dark to 3/4 light in about 5 minutes.
    ..And then they kick on the regular lights and the effect is killed in a few seconds.

    Couldn’t the Church arrange for a few extra candles on the altar for the priest and servers? Allow the choir to use small flashlights to read the music?

    How much do people REALLY need to see of the whole building, anyway?

    My parish starts at 10:00 pm. The choir uses small penlights. The Vigil opens in complete darkness save the New Fire on the outdoor steps and the then the Easter Candle brought in. Each of the Readers lights a personal candle from the Easter Candle. A candleabra is lit during the Gloria and only with the Gospel are some electric lights put on.

  35. @Katherine: Easter Vigil in the MORNING? What was the idea there?

  36. Martial Artist says:

    Father Z,

    Yes, the Navy! Really!

    The USNO is, after all, the official timekeeper for the United States (or at least was during my naval career—1971 to 1991). The last fourteen years and four months of my 241 months (“but who the heck was counting”) of active naval service were spent as a Naval Oceanographer, which is a Restricted Line Officer* specializing in (a) Oceanography; (b) Meteorology; (c) Mapping, Charting and Geodesy; and (d) Precise Timekeeping. During that time the Superintendent of the Naval Observatory was a Naval Oceanographer with the rank of Navy Captain.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer, LCDR, USN [ret]

    *— Restricted Line Officers are not eligible to command a seagoing vessel, and specialize in one of a number of technical disciplines, or groups of related technical disciplines.

    P.S. I always thought that the umbilicus mundi was Chicago.

  37. Juho says:

    Up where I live (Vantaa, Finland), the last night of this spring with any astronomical twilight whatsoever is April 21st, and even then the astronomical twilicht starts at 1:03 a.m. Would that mean we shouldn’t have any Easter Vigil at all? :)

    The Easter Vigil at my parish starts at 10:00 p.m. which is a few minutes after the end of civil twilight. Considering that many people have to travel to the Church and the public transport system closes after 1 a.m., I think this is a fair solution.

    You can look at the situation here: (http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/astronomy.html?n=1394&month=4&year=2011&obj=sun&afl=-13&day=1) :)

  38. Brad says:

    4pm vigil = can’t wait for that awesome steak at Sizzler.

  39. pgoings says:

    It should be remembered that the entire Latin Catholic church celebrated the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday morning from about the time of Alcuin (c. A.D. 800 or so) right up until 1950, ’51, or ’56. So the difficulties of timing that are being commented on here are the product of a fairly recent change, which I think is important to remember when throwing around words like “Reprehensible” [Would you go back to the top and review who used the word “reprehensible”?] and “abominations.”

  40. pgoings says:


    It was the CDWDS, as constituted in 1988, was it not? I am not at all surprised that they used the word “reprehensible” to describe a practice of the Latin church for over half of its existence. Their approach to liturgical history can be charitably described as a “hermeneutic of rupture.” Although they more accurately resembled the Soviet “historians” who were employed to remove individuals from photographs whenever a new political wind swept through the Kremlin, or like the employees at Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, who confidently told us that “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.”

  41. Brad says:

    pgoings: haha. I recently saw 1984 on TV. Pretty rare to see it aired! Wonder why…

    You appear to be an aficionado, you will recall this. At the end of his torture, the protagonist tells the torturer something along the lines of what sustains him and will give mankind enough meaning in existence and enough meaning in suffering to wait out the demise of the tyranny is the “spirit of man”. I had been waiting for him to make some sort of electro-torture confession about God’s existence, the forbidden elephant in the room, and instead he spouted humanist pablum. I literally slapped my cheeks and laughed. Oh, foolish, proud mankind! Always able to deny the one who made us, sustains us and saves us; even when the body and mind are in shreds moments from death, we deny. But I guess it’s the opposite of the tortured saints who confess God throughout. St. Laurence of the grid-iron, anyone?

  42. Marcin says:

    CDWDS used the word “reprehensible” in the context of the modern rite, the rubrics of which expressly stipulate that the Vigil is to be celebrated in the night.
    In the larger context, I may actually call the entire reform of the Holy Week in 1950s “reprehensible”, but that’s not what was discussed in F. Z’s entry.

  43. Katherine says:

    @Katherine: Easter Vigil in the MORNING? What was the idea there?

    Hold on to your bee-bonnet, dearie. It was the LIBERALS! (gasp!) that insisted that it be moved to evening/nighttime. The Traditional Easter Vigil (TEV) was Saturday morning.

  44. Stephen Matthew says:

    I had determined on going to the Easter Vigil last year, but upon finding that my parish did it at 4:00 I decided to go elsewhere for one a bit later.

    I happened to learn that a monestary near here starts its Vigil at 2:00 AM with the idea being it will finish just before the first hint of morning light returns, which I happen to think is a very nice idea.

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