The Easter Vigil can quite safely be called THE Mass of the Christian Liturgical year.
It is the Vigil which is the main Mass of Easter although the Sunday Mass is often more heavily attended, especially where the congregation has not been catechized as to the Vigil’s importance.
If people know anything about this Mass, it is usually that it very long. If all the readings are proclaimed, there are seven Old Testament readings, seven psalms and seven corresponding prayers. Then, we have an Epistle and the Gospel reading. These readings trace out our salvation history, culminating in Jesus’ resurrection. The liturgy of the Mass is not laid out willy-nilly. Each of those readings is there for a reason. Often though, the Vigil is shortened by eliminating some of the Old Testament readings.
At the Vigil Mass the water that will be used throughout the rest of the year is blessed to become Holy Water. Those who have been going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults are received into the Church at this time. There may also be other baptisms and confirmations.
The Vigil can be three hours long. What is three hours in the course of eternity?
People will spend three hours shopping, at a hockey game, or even viewing a movie. A priest I know would tell people at the beginning of Mass to take off their watches. He would remind them that they were moving from chronos time to kairos time. They were taking a peek at eternity.
He had no problem with the long Mass.
Some will complain. I think they need to be reminded of perspective. When I say this, I am assuming a healthy priest and a healthy congregation. Of course allowances must be made for infirmity. But if a person can sit at a hockey game for three hours? I think that blaming the length of the Mass for a small congregation is wrong-headed. We share the Mass with myriads of myriads each and every time we attend.
In a sense, the Vigil is a family reunion. At any Mass, we gather together with the Body of Christ, with Christ at the head. We join with Christians around the world, and throughout eternity. Those who have gone before us are there. Removing readings (and the corresponding psalms and prayers) from the Vigil is like telling someone that we don’t want to hear their family story. Sorry Uncle Isaiah, or Auntie Miriam, we don’t want to hear from you this year.
And really, just how much time is saved by taking readings out?
Through this Mass, we are not spectators. There are Psalms and hymns to sing and prayers and a litany (assuming there is someone being baptized) to join in with, along with the responses common to any Mass. The Mass may actually start outdoors, and there is a procession of the new Paschal Candle into the church. It is very beautiful.
I once heard a Bishop complain loudly about the length of the Vigil, which reminded me of two very enthusiastic members of the congregation one year; they were two small children aged 6 and about 4. They sang, they danced, they took turns ‘directing’ the choir, and had a lovely time. Their enthusiasm was quite an example. Over the years, I’ve seen many children at the Vigil. Rarely have they been disruptive or complaining.
All that said, I fully believe that people should be encouraged to be comfortable at what really is a long Mass. Dress nicely and modestly, but don’t wear clothing that scratches or shoes that pinch. Bring a cushion or back support and a lap blanket if you think you’ll need it (I know personally what a chill can do to arthritic knees and backs). Bring books or quiet toys for the children and expect them to fall asleep.
If your parish is not accustomed to a complete Easter Vigil Mass, encourage and support your priest and liturgical team in doing this. Invite your friends and bring your children. Volunteer to proclaim a reading, and practice with all your might.
Your Easter celebration will never be the same.