N HIS RECENT ARTICLE on the Holy Week changes implemented during the papacy of the Venerable Pius XII, Jeff Ostrowski summarizes the rubrics for the illumination of the church at the Easter Vigil: “In the 1950 version, the church is dark until near the conclusion of the Exsultet, when the Deacon speaks of ‘a flame divided but undimmed’—at which point the church lamps are lit from the New Fire. In the 1962 version, the church lamps are lit after the final ‘Lumen Christi.’” The Wikipedia article on the Easter Vigil notes that “Once the paschal candle has been placed on its stand in the sanctuary, the lights in the church are switched on and the congregation extinguish their candles (although in some churches, the custom is to continue the liturgy by candlelight or without any lights until the Gloria),” without citation for the latter custom, which indeed seems to be prevalent, if not predominant. Before considering “customs,” it is best to examine what the liturgical books actually say:
1920 Missale Romanum:
At the blessing of the incense: Interim omnia luminaria ecclesiæ exstinguuntur, ut de igne benedicto postmodum accendantur.
Before the words O vere beata nox in the Exsultet: Hic accenduntur lampades.
During the Litany of the Saints, before the beginning of the Mass itself: interim accenduntur luminaria in Altari.
1962 Missale Romanum:
At the third “Lumen Christi”: Et accenduntur candela populi de cereo benedicto, et luminaria ecclesiae.
During the Litany of the Saints, before the beginning of the Mass itself: Interim cereus paschalis reponitur in candelabro suo, in latere Evangelii, et altare paratur pro Missa solemni, luminaribus accensis et floribus.
At the Gloria: discooperiuntur imagines
2011 Roman Missal, third typical edition:
Before the blessing of the fire: The lights [Lat. luminaria] of the church are extinguished.
At the third “The Light of Christ”: And lights [Lat. lampades] are lit throughout the church, except for the altar candles.
Before the Gloria: After the last reading from the Old Testament with its Responsorial Psalm and its prayer, the altar candles [Lat. cerei] are lit.
Regarding the newest Missal, note that the litany, blessing of the baptismal water, and renewal of baptismal promises were moved to a later point in the liturgy, after the homily.
A Glorious Spectacle • In his Liturgy of the Roman Church (1957), Archdale A. King devotes an appendix to the Solemn Easter Vigil, noting that “the celebrant lights his own candle from the paschal candle at the first chant of Lumen Christi; at the second, the candles of the clerks and acolytes are lit; and at the third, those of the people, together with all the lights of the church. The effect of this sudden blaze of light, as the Easter candle, a symbol of the risen Saviour, is borne in triumph to the choir, is very striking” (p. 416, emphasis mine). But the weight of this symbolism is lost when the rubrics are disregarded. The Gloria of the Vigil has its own special observances, with a festive organ intonation and bell ringing and, at least in the 1962 Missal, the unveiling of images. The illumination of the church is misplaced when it occurs at this point in the liturgy. Although the symbolism of light is found in the collect addressed to “God, who dost illuminate this most sacred night by the glory of the Lord’s Resurrection,” the Gloria immediately preceding it has no references to light or darkness.
Confusion of Symbolism • As Jeff has already brought to everyone’s attention, the Easter Vigil took place in broad daylight for longer than a millennium. It is gravely inaccurate to say that the rites of Holy Saturday “have taken place by candlelight for centuries,” as I recently heard. Furthermore, however attractive candlelit ceremonies might be aesthetically, it seems undesirable to postpone the illumination of the church not only on account of the rubrics themselves, but for symbolic reasons as well. Consider these words from Pope Francis’s 2009 Easter Vigil homily:
Why is Christ Light? In the Old Testament, the Torah was considered to be like the light coming from God for the world and for humanity. The Torah separates light from darkness within creation, that is to say, good from evil. It points out to humanity the right path to true life. It points out the good, it demonstrates the truth and it leads us towards love, which is the deepest meaning contained in the Torah. It is a “lamp” for our steps and a “light” for our path (cf. Ps 119:105). Christians, then, knew that in Christ, the Torah is present, the Word of God is present in him as Person. The Word of God is the true light that humanity needs. This Word is present in him, in the Son. Psalm 19 had compared the Torah to the sun which manifests God’s glory as it rises, for all the world to see.
When the faithful sit in darkness to hear the proclamation of the Old Testament—even the passage “Let there be light!”—but hear the New Testament in a brightly illuminated church, what impression is given? If it is meant to portray that the Old Testament somehow represents darkness, then what is symbolized by the Exsultet, the litany of the saints, the blessing of the font, the sacrament of baptism, or the renewal of baptismal promises in that same darkness? Is the symbolism of the Easter Vigil better served by brilliant light or the faint glow of candles in the darkness? The liturgy itself provides the answer: Hæc nox est, de qua scriptum est: Et nox sicut dies illuminabitur. “This is the night of which it is written: And the night shall be as bright as the day.”
An Expert Opinion • In a 2017 ZENIT Q&A on Illumination at the Easter Vigil, Fr. Edward McNamara, LC, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at Regina Apostolorum University, wrote the following (again, emphasis mine):
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.
When a custom runs contrary to the symbolism the Church in her wisdom proposes to us, it is best to set it aside in favor of the correct practice—no matter how popular and even beloved the prolongation of the enchanting candlelight atmosphere might be.