Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: We are having disagreements in our parish about how to proceed in some parts of the Easter Vigil Mass. 1) When the new fire is outdoors, the procession order, back into the church, seems quite clear in the rubrics. However, at the second singing (No. 16) “all light their candles from the flame of the paschal candle …” seems misunderstood as many go in before the deacon, light their candles in every which way, from the fire, after the first singing, and from others. I personally feel we should be following the rubrics a bit more closely. It would also create a more reverent and a better understanding of our own baptism. The extra time and liturgical order would be worth it. What can you suggest in how I should deal with this? 2) After the third singing of “Light of Christ” (No. 17) the phrase “And lights are lit throughout the church …” also seems clear, but in our parish and many others, in the area, the darkness remains. All the readings are done in darkness with flashlights being used to see the readings. Then when the rubrics say (No. 31), “the altar candles are lit” all the lights of the church are put on and the Gloria is sung. What suggestions could be made so that the rubrics are followed more closely? I find it difficult to accept that we change the liturgy to our liking, which is not ours to do, especially when the rubrics seem so clear. Or am I being too “liturgically correct”? — T.V., Ottawa, Ontario
A: I do not think that our reader is incorrect in desiring that the rubrics should be followed exactly.
The text of the relevant rubrics say:
“When the candle has been lit, one of the ministers takes burning coals from the fire and places them in the thurible, and the priest puts incense into it in the usual way. The Deacon or, if there is no deacon, another suitable minister, takes the paschal candle and a procession forms. The thurifer with the smoking thurible precedes the Deacon or other minister who carries the paschal candle. After them follows the priest with the ministers and the people all holding in their hands unlit candles.
“At the door of the church the Deacon, standing and raising up the candle sings: ‘The Light of Christ’ and all reply ‘Thanks be to God.’
“The priest lights his candle from the flame of the paschal candle.
“Then the deacon moves forward to the middle of the Church and, standing and raising up the candle sings a second time …
“All light their candles from the flame of the paschal candle and continue in procession.
“When the deacon arrives before the altar, he stands facing the people, raises up the candle and sings a third time …
“Then the deacon places the paschal candle on a large candle stand prepared next to the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary.
“And lights are lit throughout the church except for the altar candles.”
Regarding the Gloria, the rubrics say:
“After the last reading from the Old Testament with its Responsorial Psalm and it prayer, the altar candles are lit, and the priest intones the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), which is taken up by all, while bells are rung, according to local custom.”
As our reader mentions, the rubrics themselves are quite clear with respect to the procession. At the same time, some adaptions may be necessary because of local circumstances or because of liturgical necessity.
For example, it might not be advisable in Canada to have all the people wait outside the church when a typical nighttime temperature in March and April hovers around zero Celsius. In such cases the majority could wait for the candle inside holding unlit candles.
In milder climes some practical measures could be taken, by only opening the principal church doorway when the procession arrives and using ropes or other means to guide the procession.
Likewise, both for safety and liturgical motives the immediate area around the new fire could be cordoned off so that it was not possible to light the personal candles there.
However, far more important is to inculcate in the faithful, through some form of initial preparation such as a brief commentary before the celebration begins, as to the importance of the symbolism of all receiving the light from the one paschal candle which represents the Risen Christ who brings us new life and new light. Once the symbolic value behind the rubric is grasped, then it will be much easier to live the liturgy in its fullness.
The second point is also fairly clear. After the third “Lumen Christi” lights are lit throughout the church.
The custom of doing the readings in darkness does not correspond to the rubrics and does not seem to be a direct holdover from the older liturgy of the extraordinary form, as the EF rubrics for the vigil also stipulate lighting the church after the third “Lumen Christi.”
However, the rubrics in the EF are slightly different insofar as only the clergy lit their candles at the second “Lumen Christi” and the people at the third, which thus coincided with lighting the lamps of the church. This rubric probably dampened the effect of the church lit only by candles.
It is also true that the moment of the Gloria receives greater emphasis in the extraordinary form than in the current rite. According to the manual of Fortescue-O’Connell-Reid:
“[The priest] intones ‘Gloria in excelsis.’ The bells of the church, great and small, are rung during the Gloria, the singing of which is accompanied by the organ. The images of the church are unveiled.”
Thus I think that, although not stipulated in the rites, it is quite probable that a desire to prolong the time of the church lit by candles alone, and the importance given to the Gloria, led to the widespread custom of postponing the full lighting of the church to that moment or at least to after the singing of the Exsultet. This custom was then carried over to the current rite.
Our reader hails from Canada, but I have seen this custom also in Mexico and other Latin American countries. In some places it is so established that even priests think that this is the correct way to do so and that it is an error to turn on the lights after the last “Lumen Christi.”
I am naturally in favor of following the established rubrics. These say that “lights are lit throughout the church.” They do not stipulate that all the lights have to be turned on.
For this reason, although I do not personally advocate this form of progressive illumination, I do not think that it would be against the rubrics to partially illuminate the whole church after the third “Lumen Christi” and then turn on all or most lights following the Exsultet when the candles are extinguished.
There is nothing in the missal, nor in the general sense of the current rite, that would favor prolonging quasi-darkness until the Gloria. The Exsultet is, after all, the proclamation of the Resurrection, and the Old Testament readings are not indicative of a period of obscurity but of prophesy that aids to fully understand their fulfilment in the Resurrection.
We could say that, in a way, the lighting of the altar candles at this moment symbolizes the arrival of the sacramental economy of salvation, the heart of which is the Eucharistic celebration.
Where emphasizing this moment of the vigil is a long-established custom, it would probably be acceptable to wait until this moment to turn on the lights that directly illuminate the altar.
* * *
Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.