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.

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: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”