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: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!