Paschal Candle

The Great Vigil of Easter: From Darkness to Light

The Great Vigil of Easter, offered by Trinity Church Wall Street at 8pm on Saturday, April 16, is an ancient liturgy of the Christian year, and it is almost certainly the liturgy richest in symbolism.

Easter Vigil at St. Paul's Chapel on April 20, 2019
April 20, 2019

Beginning in darkness after sunset on Holy Saturday, the vigil starts with the lighting of a fire, illuminating the darkness. Here’s how Trinity's service bulletin for the evening of April 16 describes the vigil:

The Great Vigil of Easter is one of the oldest known rites of the Christian church, dating back to the second century. It brings worshippers, literally and symbolically, from darkness into light. The service is comprised of four parts: The Service of Light (kindling of new fire, lighting the Paschal candle, the Exsultet); The Service of Lessons (readings from the Hebrew Scriptures interspersed with psalms, canticles, and prayers); Christian Initiation (Holy Baptism) or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows; and the Eucharist. After weeks of penitence, preparation, and reflection, more joyful elements return to the liturgy. The Exsultet, a chant almost as old as the Easter Vigil itself, invites us to rejoice in Christ’s triumph over death and redemption of the world; and the word alleluia (“Praise the Lord”)—which has not been spoken during the past 40 days of Lent—is proclaimed enthusiastically, and will remain in acclamations, hymns, and dismissals throughout Eastertide.

It has been observed that the four sections of the service can be compared with fire, air, water, and earth, the four primal elements of the cosmos. The vigil’s history evokes that sense of the primal, of foundational beginning. In the early days of Christianity, the vigil marked the night when new members of the faith, called catechumens, having passed through a long and intense period of preparation, were officially joined in the community through baptism.

Even today, while morning services on Easter Day are associated with beautiful flowers surrounding the altar and worshippers dressed in Easter finery, it is the vigil which The Episcopal Church calls “the first (and arguably, the primary) celebration of Easter.” 

The Great Vigil of Easter is open to in-person attendance in Trinity Church, will be live-streamed at, and is also available live on Facebook and on YouTube.