Vigil Masses: What they are and where they come from

Rocio Madera

With Christmas Vigil Masses happening as early as 1 p.m. this week, now’s a good a time as any to give you some fun trivia to bring up at Christmas dinner by answering the questions: What is a vigil Mass, and where did they come from?

The term “vigil” derives from the Latin vigilia which means, “a night to watch,” generally the fourth part of the night from sunset to sunrise. In the Christian Church, it is a religious service held during the night leading to a feast day. This practice dates back to early Christianity when the faithful would wake up in the middle of the night to pray. 

During the third and fourth centuries, it was very common to hold a vigil in preparation for a feast. The service would begin on the previous night to the feast day and end the next morning. During these vigils, the faithful gathered in the evening at an assigned place or in the church where the celebration would take place. The vigils involved prayers, readings from Sacred Scripture, Psalms, and sermon followed by a Eucharistic service. The vigil was a “preparation” for a more fruitful celebration of the feast.  

During the Middle Ages, as a result of entertainment acts, such as dramatic representations of saints, church vigils were banned with the exception of the patronal saint’s feast. Over time, the number of vigils was reduced considerably.  

Today, a few solemnities have their own Vigil Mass which is usually celebrated on the evening before the feast day. These solemnities are: Easter Sunday, the Ascension of the Lord, Pentecost, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, St. Peter & St. Paul, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Nativity of the Lord, and the Epiphany of the Lord. The readings and prayers for these Masses are different from the texts of the Mass celebrated on the feast day.  

The greatest and the most significant of all Vigil Masses, and all celebrations of the liturgical year, is Easter. The Easter Vigil is the culmination of Lent and the peak of the Liturgical Year, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This vigil is strictly celebrated at night, between sunset of Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday.  

The Christmas Vigil Mass is celebrated on December 24, and it is often confused with the Christmas Midnight Mass. During the Christmas Vigil celebration, the faithful participate in an “anticipated celebration” of the Nativity of the Lord prior to midnight.

In the Christmas Vigil Mass, we are coming out of Advent to enter Christmas, but we are still in a time of waiting and anticipation. During this liturgical celebration, we hear, once again, the readings that were read on the last Sunday of Advent. These readings are concentrated on the announcement of the coming of our Lord, and one last time, the Gospel prepares us for the big day.   

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted liturgical celebrations this year, it has not stopped the Church traditions and celebrations that bring us closer to the arrival of our Savior. This year, Vigil Masses may be celebrated as early as 1 p.m. on Dec. 24. This will allow the faithful to participate and prepare in a deeper way for the moment we have all been waiting for during Advent: the birth of Jesus. 

For Christmas Mass times, please contact your local parish. You can find a parish by visiting the Archdiocese of Denver’s Parish Locator. 

Featured image by Daniel Petty


COMING UP: ‘I have seen the Lord’: St. Vincent de Paul’s new adoration chapel honors St. Mary Magdelene’s witness

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“I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18). 

One couple from St. Vincent de Paul parish took these words to heart with urgency last year during the pandemic and decided to build a Eucharistic Adoration chapel for their fellow faithful to be in the Lord’s presence themselves. 

Mike and Shari Sullivan donated design and construction of the new Eucharistic Adoration Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene adjacent to their parish church to make a space for prayer and adoration that they felt needed to be reinstated, especially during the difficult days of COVID-19. 

The chapel was completed this spring and dedicated during Divine Mercy weekend with a special blessing from Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. 

“It was invigorating to have the archbishop bless the chapel,” Mike said. “The church has been buzzing.” 

Mike has been a Catholic and a member of St. Vincent de Paul since his baptism, which he jokes was around the time the cornerstone was placed in 1951. The Sullivans’ five children all attended the attached school and had their sacraments completed at St. Vincent de Paul too. 

Archbishop Samuel Aquila dedicated the St. Mary Magdalene adoration chapel with a prayer and blessing at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church on April 9, 2021, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

The 26-by 40-foot chapel is a gift to fellow parishioners of a church that has meant so much to their family for decades, and to all who want to participate in prayer and adoration. 

The architect and contractor are both Catholic, which helped in the design of Catholic structure and the construction crew broke ground in mid-December. The Sullivans wanted to reclaim any Catholic artifacts or structural pieces they could for the new chapel. Some of the most striking features of the chapel are the six stained glass windows Mike was able to secure from a demolished church in New York. 

The windows were created by Franz Xaver Zettler who was among a handful of artists known for the Munich style of stained glass from the 19th century.  The Munich style is accomplished by painting detailed pictures on large pieces of glass unlike other stained-glass methods, which use smaller pieces of colored glass to make an image. 

The two primary stained-glass windows depict St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene, the chapel’s namesake, and they frame either side of the altar which holds the tabernacle and monstrance — both reused from St.  Vincent De Paul church.  

The Sullivans wanted to design a cloistered feel for the space and included the traditional grill and archway that opens into the pews and kneelers with woodwork from St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. 

The chapel was generously donated by Mike and Shari Sullivan. The stained glass windows, which depict St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene, were created by Franz Xaver Zettler, who was among a handful of artists known for the Munich style of stained glass from the 19th century. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Shari is a convert to Catholicism and didn’t grow up with the practice of Eucharistic adoration, but St. Vincent de Paul pastor Father John Hilton told her to watch how adoration will transform the parish. She said she knows it will, because of what regular Eucharistic adoration has done for her personally. 

The Sullivans are excited that the teachers at St. Vincent de Paul school plan to bring their classes to the warm and inviting chapel to learn about the practice of adoration and reflect on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 

The words of St. Mary Magdalene “I have seen the Lord,” have become the motto of the chapel, Mike said, and they are emblazoned on a brass plaque to remind those who enter the holy space of Christ’s presence and the personal transformation offered to those inside.

The St. Vincent de Paul  Church and The Eucharistic Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene is located at 2375 E. Arizona Ave. Denver 80210 on the corner of Arizona and Josephine Street. The chapel is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Visit for more information about the chapel and to look for updates on expanded hours as they occur.