The “vigil” of Pentecost will soon be upon us. To keep vigil in anticipation of a holy day is a part of our Catholic tradition. The ritual was not only attractive to the early Christians, but also necessary. Having to remain hidden during persecution brought a certain mystery to meeting for their prayers in the secrecy of night.
As the church continued to grow and become public and eventually part of everyday life, the spiritual practice of the vigil remained with the faithful. On the night prior to every feast, people gathered in the church where the feast was to be celebrated. They prepared themselves through fasting, prayers, readings and hearing a sermon. Towards morning the people dispersed to their homes to wait for the solemn Mass of the day.
Keeping a vigil still holds a prominent place in society. Many images may come to mind: a time of prayer extended through the night, a soldier keeping night watch, family gathered around the bed of someone who is gravely ill or members of religious orders or laity gathered in a eucharistic adoration chapel. Also think back a few weeks ago when thousands kept vigil through the night in St. Peter’s Square awaiting the canonization of Ss. Pope John XXIII and John Paul II.
Being a pastoral associate has given me the intimate honor to be with people as they keep vigil, often in a hospital room waiting for a loved one’s death. In deep sorrow, but fortified by hope and prayer, the family makes themselves present to one who is in pain. One soon realizes there is nothing we can do for the one who is dying except to pray and be near. Keeping vigil engages a natural, physical and emotional response.
Yet that is exactly what Christ asked his apostles to do for him in Gethsemane, to remain with him through the night keeping watch.
Within the liturgical context, we know that Holy Saturday night inaugurates “the mother of all vigils.” In addition, we keep 17 other vigils as prescribed by the Roman Calendar: the eves of Christmas, the Epiphany, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the eight feasts of the apostles, St. John the Baptist, St. Lawrence and All Saints. Unlike the Masses of anticipation on Saturday evening, many of these vigil Masses have their own particular Scripture readings and Mass prayers, aside from those used on the feast day.
If you attend Mass this Saturday evening, you may find that the usual “Mass of Anticipation” readings are replaced with the vigil Mass for the feast of Pentecost. The vigil Mass of Pentecost mirrors the Easter Vigil in that in the revised Roman Missal an option is given for an extended Liturgy of the Word. Four Old Testament readings with each reading followed by a psalm and a prayer can be used in addition to the second reading and the Gospel.
You may find that the vigil Mass for Pentecost will demand more of your personal time and engagement. But we know that the degree to which we are able to spend time personally preparing for something is proportional to the degree to which we will be able to experience the joy of the feast. This Pentecost eve, within our churches and our home, let us keep vigil; God’s mighty Holy Spirit is awaiting us.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.