How to conduct an Easter Vigil service

In the Church, the day begins at sunset, so Easter Day really begins at sunset on what we call Saturday evening.

The ancient Church held its main Easter service on Saturday evening, and some Orthodox churches have continued this tradition to the present day. The Easter Vigil service begins somberly and has a joyous, exuberant climax at midnight, which, for the purposes of this service, is the time of the Resurrection. During the service, the congregation renews its baptismal vows and receives new converts in baptism.

In some parts of the ancient Church, this was the only service in the year during which people were baptized.

Here is how you can restore this ancient worship service to your church. This service generally uses a Paschal candle, which is a very large white pillar candle, often decorated with Christian symbols. You can purchase one from a religious supply house. It is traditional to light the Paschal candle at every Sunday service during the Easter Season.

The Easter Vigil Service

Begin in dim lighting. Light the Paschal candle and lead the congregation in prayers of thanksgiving, that Jesus is the light of the world.

After that, alternate Scripture readings and brief congregational prayers. Each prayer should reflect the theme of the preceding reading. In planning your service, choose at least three of the following Old Testament readings and Psalms, but always include the one in bold, which includes Exodus 14. If there are any hymns, make sure they are subdued and thematically appropriate. You can have different members of the congregation read the scriptures and lead the prayers.

  • Genesis 1:1-2:4a with Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26
  • Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13 with Psalm 46
  • Genesis 22:1-18 with Psalm 16
  • Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 and Exodus 15:1b-13, 17-18
  • Isaiah 55:1-11 with Isaiah 12:2-6
  • Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 with Psalm 19
  • Ezekiel 36:24-28 with Psalms 42 and 43
  • Ezekiel 37:1-14 with Psalm 143
  • Zephaniah 3:14-20 with Psalm 98

At this point, the congregation affirms their baptismal vows. Conduct any baptisms at this point.

Next come the following readings:

  • Romans 6:3-11 and Psalm 114

Finally, use the Gospel reading that is appropriate for the current lectionary year:

  • Year A Gospel (2005, 2008)
    Matthew 28:1-10
  • Year B Gospel (2006, 2009)
    Mark 16:1-8
  • Year C Gospel (2007, 2010)
    Luke 24:1-12

At this point—which is traditionally at midnight—use the Paschal candle to light any other candles. Turn up the lights, ring the bells, burst out with music; do everything you can to express jubilation! If there are any hymns during this part of the service, they should be jubilant Easter hymns.

Conclude the service with a triumphant, festive Eucharist.