TRIDUUM NOTE – How early can the Easter Vigil 2017 begin?

We are getting to that time of Lent when we should be thinking about the schedule for the Vigil of Easter.

Here is an oldie but goodie. Updated for 2017.

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. I am leaving aside the dilemma of people in, say, northern Alaska, where length of day and night and day at different times of the year can be pretty dramatic.

But, ad rem

Since this night is the most important of the year, you want to get it right. Right? That includes the right 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, and that it finishes before dawn of Sunday.

sunset twilight

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) be gotten through entirely during nighttime
b) begin after nightfall
c) be completed 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.

Midnight is the traditional time to begin the Vigil Mass rites!

Also, the 1988 Circular of the CDW, called Paschale solemnitatis (Notitiae 24 [1988] pp. 81-107) 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.

The Jews made all sorts of distinctions about sundown and twilight and night. So do we when considering liturgical times.

We must drill into initium noctisThissunset twilight is the time when light from your planet’s yellow star is no longer visible. It is when twilight ends.  It is after nightfall.  This is the earliest time we can start the Vigil: initium noctis... the beginning of night, nightfall.

What does this mean?  We need some definitions.

Sunset is when the upper edge of the sun finally sinks the horizon. This is what the Jews called sunset. 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.

There are also levels of twilight.  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. More helpful in this day of astronomical precision and electric lights is to go by Astronomical Twilight: when sunlight no longer illuminates the sky. That’s the time we are looking for.

The end of Astronomical Twilight 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.


Exempli gratia let’s say you are in the Diocesis Extraordinarii Ordinarii Madisonensis, where I am now.

Summon a chart for Astronomical Twilight from the Naval Observatory for your place and find the end of Astronomical Twilight for 15 April 2017 (yes 15, Saturday, because Easter Sunday is 16 April). NB: There is a drop down menu for the type of table!  Choose Astronomical Twilight… its defaut is sunrise/sunset. My results were 2024 + 0100 hour for daylight savings which begins 13 March in these USA), which means that the starting time can be 2124. Let’s call it 9:30 pm, to start the procession to go to the place for the flinty sparking of the fire.

Your nightfall (your exact Astronomical Twilight) will be a little different depending on your location (latitude and longitude, elevation, etc).

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.

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”?

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  1. ChesterFrank says:

    1713 +one hour= 1813, or 06:13 pm. Easy enough to do.

    [I think you did that wrong. That doesn’t look right at all. I’ll wager that, where you are, the end of Astronomical Twilight is later than that on 15 April, between 2100 and 2130.]

  2. Mary Jane says:

    Our EF vigil usually starts at 10:30pm (and mass doesn’t usually get started until midnight or later).

    Fascinating explanation about twilight, etc. Thank you Fr Z!

  3. Gerhard says:

    Fumbling and stumbling over benches, steps and other impedimenta in the pitch dark church form a glorious and ineffable part of our EF Easter Vigil Masses, at our particular Dominican Convent in Brittany, France. Wouldn’t change it for the world! The symbolism is tremendous, as are the occasional bruises.

  4. Henry Edwards says:

    “I cannot think of any exceptions.”

    Unless, that is, you celebrating the (really) traditional pre-1955 Sacred Triduum–as some of us have fantasized about trying sometime [I’ve done it! A long time ago.] –in which the Easter Vigil would be anticipated in the morning of Holy Saturday. Which, among other possible benefits, would resolve the typical parish problem of schedule conflicts between the traditional and Novus Ordo triduum celebrations.

  5. Cantor says:

    I would submit one exception for your consideration.

    Our small rural parish includes a vast majority of parishioners who are north of 65 years old. A significant number of the congregation have vision problems which absolutely rule out driving in twilight, let alone after dark. We have some transportation volunteers but not enough for everybody. (It’s illegal to pack folks into your pickup like in the good ol’ days!) We realize only too well that the ceremonies lose some of their ‘awe and mystery’ in daylight, but somewhere in God’s universe it’s well after dark.

    [Nope. Sorry.]

  6. Latinmass1983 says:

    In the good old (pre-1955) days, this did not seem to be much of problem at all!

    For hundreds of years, the Easter Vigil was not celebrated at night, nor in the evening … then, it became of strict obligation in 1955 that it be done at night … until the New Order (which was not too far from the second part of the 1950s) came into being … and that “strictness” for night time that was applied to the Easter Vigil did not seem to be an obstacle in allowing the obligation of attending Mass on Sunday to be fulfilled the evening before (or, as some claim, a Mass in the early afternoon on Saturday could do that too!).

    It also became possible to have Ascension Thursday on a Sunday, and to replace giving meat on Fridays with giving up chocolate … etc., and it became possible to forgo the obligation to attend Mass on a Saturday or Monday if a holy day of obligation fell on either of those two days because Mass on Sunday (the day between Saturday and Monday) was quite enough “church time” for people!

    Before the 1955 “revisions,” time was not calculated from midnight to midnight (the way it is now … sort of, except when you attend Mass on a Saturday evening, which fulfills your Sunday obligation!). That is why it was possible to do First Vespers of a Feast the evening (not night) before a great Feast. I believe that it is still possible to do that for some big Feasts and Sundays according to the 1962 books.

    Curiously enough, Tenebrae (according to the revised 1955 books) is now to be celebrated in the morning of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (where it is celebrated), despite the fact that the name (Tenebrae) does not quite go with morning hours! Anyway, most people (even in the New Order world) who still do Tenebrae (except maybe for Religious houses) still do Tenebrae the evening before …

  7. Imrahil says:

    While the rule says the rule has to interpreted in a strict manner…

    I don’t think it need to be interpreted as stricter than it says it is.

    What obviously is not night is the time between sunrise and sunset. What obviously is night is astronomical night. But the rubric doesn’t say “astronomical night”. It says “night”, and absent any further specification this means “what an objective man-in-the-street will call night”.

    Hence, if it has already darkened visibly, the time of sunset is long over (roughly speaking for at the least an hour), and – to mark the distinction – the time usual Sunday Evening Masses are held is likewise passed for a considerable time, the time should be fine.

    In other words, when civil twilight is over, it is at least eight o’clock of civil time (people don’t call anything “night” before), and the parish does not have a custom of having regular Evening Masses at this time, having the Vigil Mass then should be fine enough to comply with the rubric.

    My point being (in the main) that if the table says “21:24 of DST is astronomical nightfall”, then a priest would not sin in setting the Vigil Mass to nine o’clock precisely.

    (As for the practice – praeter legem as it stands, but not specifically called “reprehended” here either nor of inherently wrong significance – of starting in deep night, at least before nautical dawn, and celebrating into the Sunday, the dangerous machine of can. 24 § 2, can. 26 and the counting up to thirty the years where this has in practice been a locally tolerated option might possibly be applied.)

    [How often you have something contrary to say. No. I’ll go by the entirely reasonable and easily (now at least) calculable initium noctis.]

  8. Poor Yorek says:

    But, but, Vatican II said “let fresh sun into the Church,” er, I mean, “air,” no, er, “Sunny Spring Air,” -not “hot air” – … whatever … YOU HATE VATICAN II.

    Is it wrong to have fun in Lent? :-/

  9. Martin_B says:

    You have to get the easter Vigil right.
    You don’t have to participate.
    Any other mass on easter sunday will fulfil your obligation.

  10. Peter in Canberra says:

    I understand and agree with the liturgical character that is explained. But I’m interested in how this squares with the historical context – doing the Vigil in the dark is a relative liturgical novelty. My Father and Grandfather (and their fathers’ fathers to the nth generation) will have attended the Vigil in bright Saturday (morning) sunshine. Is there an accessible work that describes how, when and why that came to be?

    Is a corollary of strict adherence to Vigil = dark also strict adherence (in 1962 rubrics) that the office of Tenebrae MUST be celebrated in daylight? I have seen that insistence and it makes no sense to me (including that the use of the word Tenebrae is then nonsensical). In a parish setting, where participation in Tenebrae in its ‘traditional’ timing is possible for people because it is outside of (normal) work hours, having it in the morning would make attendance/participation problematic for most people. I also seem to remember someone telling me that at the introduction of the ‘new’ Tenebrae timings that in Rome they were very much honoured in the breach.

  11. RussianOrthodox1448 says:

    Traditionally the Pascha Vigil should be celebrated after the hour of None since abbreviated First Vespers was attached to the Vigil in the pre-1955 rite. Also, the traditional vigil was a liturgy of anticipation. Pascha was officially rung in at the hour of Mattins which was sadly thrown away in the post-1955 atrocities.

    [Of course the point of this post is to establish how early the law permits it to start, not when it ought to start.]

  12. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: older folks — If that is a real problem, those older folks should be going to morning Mass on Easter, and maybe the parish should make Easter Sunday its big deal.

    I love Easter Vigil and Midnight Mass, but they are not supposed to replace the actual holiday day in parish life.

  13. iamlucky13 says:

    “Since this night is the most important of the year, you want to get it right. Right?”

    Right! Get the rite right, preferably at midnight.

  14. Matt Robare says:

    I came across the Archdiocese of Boston’s Ordo for last year and noticed that a number of parishes had scheduled their Easter Vigils to begin much earlier than stipulated. Boston uses nautical twilight and parishes were not permitted to begin earlier than 8:00 pm, but I noticed that several did so.

    This year’s Ordo says they can’t start until 8:30. I hope the MBTA extends the bus hours.

  15. Forgive me father, but a point of clarification. At one point in this article, you indicate that the end of “astronomical twilight” is our target; but elsewhere in the same explanation, you say, “Summon a chart for Astronomical Twilight from the Naval Observatory for your place and find the beginning of Astronomical Twilight for 15 April 2017″ (emphasis added). Can you please clarify on this one point, bitte? (I.e., the beginning of astronomical twilight would be the end of nautical twilight, by my reading of the charts.)

    [Good catch. Yes, we must look for the END of Astronomical Twilight (as I show on the chart), because during twilight, it is .. well twilight and not night. So, initium noctis is at the end of Astronomical Twilight.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  16. Sword40 says:

    At our FSSP parish we start about 11:0pm and slowly progress so that the Gloria is sung with organ at 12:00am ( midnight) sharp. It is magnificent!!!!!

  17. Imrahil says:

    Reverend Father,

    of course you are quite right: The point is how early the law permits it to start, not when it ought to start.

    Which is why I, alas, had something contrary to say.

    If there’s light out, I call it “twilight”. If it’s dark, I’ll call it “night”, it being immaterial whether now astronomers speak of “astronomical twilight”, even “nautical twilight”, or “actual night”.

  18. vetusta ecclesia says:

    It took centuries for the Vigil to creep back to Sat a.m. but only decades for it to go from night to late afternoon!

  19. Filipino Catholic says:

    The demarcation between twilight and night that forms such a quibble here is probably why medieval astronomical clocks like the one in Prague bore a dial that not only showed the hours of solar time, but the transition periods between day and night (the Prague one bears the words Ortus, Aurora, Occasus, and Crepusculum).

  20. frjim4321 says:

    “We are getting to that time of Lent when we should be thinking about the schedule for the Vigil of Easter.” – Our Congenial Host


    We do calendaring every April for the following 15 months.

    I would love to be a place were could do everything by the seat of the pants, but it we did that here it would be a scheduling nightmare.

    [You have, perhaps, made some assumptions. This annual post also helps to CORRECT annually scheduled litugical abuses.]

  21. hwriggles4 says:

    As Matt mentioned, my southern diocese also has stated that Easter Vigil cannot begin until 8:30 pm. It’s been this way for years. I like to go because I like seeing and welcoming those coming into the Church. Last Easter, a friend of mine who faithfully attended Mass weekly with his wife for many years formally entered the Church.

    Easter Vigil where I normally attend is done reverently. All seven readings (I get upset when the pastor insists on doing the required three to make the Vigil shorter), no liturgical dancers or songs like “wade in the water” with clapping at baptisms (yes, I have seen this), solid homilies, and Catholics wanting to be there.

    For years, my mother would call me on Easter Sunday. Her first question, “did you go to the Vigil last night?” Her second question, “how long was yours – ours was three hours.” When I started replying, “I don’t know, I didn’t look at my watch”, she stopped asking me about the time.

  22. Grant M says:

    Interesting website. I see that where I am on April 15, sunset will be at 1752, civil twilight at 1813, and astronomical twilight at 1902. I think the first Vigil Mass will probably be at 1800, on the grounds that eight minutes after sunset and thirteen minutes before civil twilight is close enough, especially with two lengthy Vigil Masses to be celebrated in one evening. (The parish is very large.)

  23. Grant M said:

    …especially with two lengthy Vigil Masses to be celebrated in one evening. (The parish is very large.)

    This drives me crazy. I realize many parishes are large and complex, with perhaps two and three distinct groups (often divided by language), but — I cannot see any good excuse for this. One parish, one Easter Vigil Mass. If the combined group is too large, then either you say, well, we can only seat 200, so sorry — or, if you really must, you can have Mass in a larger venue. I mean, if you absolutely must, you could use a nearby church, or a gym, or a tent. This is the Easter Vigil, after all.

    If it’s a language issue, there are solutions. [Fr. Z: insert comment in red typeface about using Latin!] But multiplying the Vigil? Bizarre. Absurd. If two, why not three? Why not two simultaneously? Why not Vigil Masses every hour, on the hour?

    Some will say, oh, it’s because so many who are in RCIA. Well, let’s be clear: only those who are preparing for baptism are intended to take part in RCIA; it’s understandable that it is easier to have those who are already baptized, and entering into full communion, to take part in the same programs, but — it is not at all necessary for them to be received on the Vigil. In some ways, this creates a problem (which the RCIA documents refer to): of there being a diminution of the difference that baptism makes. So if this is about so many people being received, then the solution is to say, only those to be baptized are initiated on the Vigil; we will receive the rest on, say, Pentecost.

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