Vigils provide spiritual preparation

By | August 4, 2010

We have an interesting mix of readings this Sunday. The first and second readings and part of the Gospel focus on faith — the faith of Abraham, that of the people who experienced God’s mighty deeds on the night of Passover, and Jesus’ command to sell all and place our hope in the inexhaustible treasure he promises.

In the second part of the Gospel, Jesus tells two parables about servants awaiting their master’s return. Some kept watch with a readiness to open the door. Others were not so vigilant. The message seems pretty straightforward: be prepared for the time when Jesus will return — either at the end of time, or, at the end of our personal lifetime.

Jesus wasn’t specific about the time and date of his return. In the first years after the resurrection, Christians believed that his final coming in glory would happen rather quickly, and even St. Paul writes of Christ’s returning “soon.” Later, when some stopped working and became a financial burden to the community, Paul had to remind them that until Christ’s return, they needed to work if they wanted to eat (2 Thes 3:10).

The practice of “keeping vigil”— watching and waiting expectantly in prayer for the coming of Christ — is part of the church’s earliest liturgical tradition. It has its roots in the Jewish practice of beginning the liturgical day at sunset on the evening before. Thus, Easter, the first annual feast on the Christian calendar, began at sunset on Holy Saturday. Christians gathered to keep the vigil by watching and praying through the night until the first light of dawn. They fasted and prayed with lamps lighted, singing psalms and hymns, Scripture readings, and concluded with the baptism of new members and the celebration of the Eucharist on Easter morning.

As other feasts were added to the calendar, these were also preceded by an all-night vigil as spiritual preparation beginning with evening prayer and ending with the Eucharist at dawn. St. Augustine and St. Jerome comment on vigil celebrations for Easter, Christmas, Epiphany and Pentecost. As even more feasts were added to the calendar, the all-night prayer vigil was reserved for major feasts.

In addition to liturgical vigils, Christian knights in the middle ages prepared for their knighthood ceremony by a ritual bath, celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation, and an all-night fast and prayer vigil.

Throughout the centuries we’ve also kept vigil with families at the time of death. While we no longer stay all through the night, we gather to support the family with our prayer and presence as they prepare for the final farewell which will happen the next day.

Liturgically we continue to keep the vigil of significant feasts even today: the Easter Vigil is unique in its content and length of celebration. But we also celebrate the vigil of Christmas (Christmas Eve) and of Pentecost with special Masses the night before the feast. These are not merely like the “anticipated” Mass of Sunday but are meant to be a devotional spiritual preparation for key feast days and hopefully a reminder that we should always live so as to be ready, waiting for, and helping to bring about, the final coming of the Lord.


Sr. Rehrauer is the director of Evangelization and Worship for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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