As we are our observance of the Triduum at St. Mary’s in Pine Bluff in the Extraordinary Form, I also received a question about the time to begin the Easter Vigil.
The time for the Easter Vigil is explained in the Church’s law.
Here is an oldie but goodie. Updated for 2019.
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. St. Augustine called this “the mother of all Vigils” (s. 219).
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.
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  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 noctis… the beginning of night.
Night is the time when light from your planet’s yellow star is no longer visible. Night 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.
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 20 April 2019 (yes 20, Saturday, because in 2019 Easter Sunday is 21 April). NB: There is a drop down menu for the type of table! Choose Astronomical Twilight… its default is sunrise/sunset.
My results were 2032 + 0100 hour for daylight savings (in force where I write), which means that the starting time can be 2132. Let’s call it 9:30 pm, to start the procession to go to the place for the flinty sparking of the fire.
CLICK FOR LARGER
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”?