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Vigil Masses: What they are and where they come from

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.

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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



Rocio Madera
Rocio Madera
Rocio is the Communications Specialist for both El Pueblo Católico and Denver Catholic.

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