In the midst of the early dark of night a fire begins to flicker outside the church. An Easter Candle, boldly marked with the symbols of the current year and of Christ’s divinity and glorious suffering, is lit from the new fire. It is carried prominently into the midst of the people. There it is heralded with joyful song: “Light of Christ.. Come, let us adore him.” From this one light, the candles of hundreds of assembled believers are lit until the church is ablaze with new light. A cantor sings an ancient and beautiful song (Exultet, “Rejoice”) before the Easter Candle. Powerful Scripture readings about water and new creation are proclaimed. Easter water is blessed with the singing of of the Litany of Saints and with sacred oils consecrated just days before at the Chrism Mass. Catechumens step forward, speak their baptismal vows with the supportive voices of the congregation around them, and are baptized. Bells ring out. Flowers, especially Easter Lilies, and joyful banners decorate the sanctuary. Alleluias are sung for the first time in six weeks. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!
No other moment of the church year is as rich in powerful and early
The daytime hours of Holy Saturday, continuing the atmosphere of Good Friday, have been observed as a time of quiet and fasting from the early centuries. The day had no liturgy or religious traditions of its own. There was an atmosphere of anticipation for the coming of night for the celebration of the resurrection.symbolism as the Easter Vigil. It is the night of all nights. It is the heart of Christianity. It is Easter!
The impressive blessing and lighting of the Easter fire, which still begins the vigil today, was not part of the ritual in ancient times. Among the Germanic people in pre-Christian times, bonfires in honor of pagan deities were popular to announce the beginning of spring and to assure good crops. After Christianity spread among these people, the church forbade these spring bonfires as a pagan practice. During the 6th and 7th centuries, however, Irish missionaries brought to the continent a tradition of blessing a bonfire outside of the church on Holy Saturday night. This tradition had been started by St Patrick to counter the influence of spring bonfires among the Celtics Druids. the tradition became popular in the Carolingian empire, spread to Rome, and eventually was incorporated into the liturgy of the Easter Vigil.
The lighting of the new Easter fire also had a practical purpose. The lamps in church used to be extinguished Holy Thursday night. Consequently, a new fire had to be lit for the celebrant and readers to see by.