One of the least discussed but most concrete qualities of Catholic worship is that it is, generally speaking, short. On any given Sunday most Catholics can expect to be walking out of the church less than an hour after they entered. There are some parishes—those with particularly enthusiastic choirs or homilists, or a particularly lengthy list of announcements—that might run closer to an hour and a half. But even the most action-packed Sunday Mass does not rival the many Protestant Christian denominations that gather for three or four hours. I once complained about a Mass that lasted a full hour to a friend who is Baptist, and she laughed in my face.
The relative brevity of the Mass has to do, in part, with the fact that it has a universal formula. Wherever you go, no matter how strange the city, at Mass you can settle into the familiar rhythms of prayer. But there is one night each year, when much of this goes out the stained-glass window: The hours-long, candle-lit, incense infused, sacrament-packed Easter Vigil. It is a Mass that bears only a basic resemblance to typical Catholic weekend worship, but in breaking from that form it brings home the power of the Resurrection anew. And that is exactly why it is worth being there, for however long it takes.
The very form of the Easter Vigil is subversive in the best possible way. It begins only after nightfall, as do all good mysteries. And it starts with the congregation rising from their pews and heading outside to stand around what the rubric says must be a “blazing fire,” (or rogus ardens—don’t you love Latin translations?). There the fire is blessed and nails pressed into the paschal candle, a candle that should be, according to an essay on the website of the U.S. bishops, of “sufficiently large size that it may convey the truth that Christ is the light of the world.” This has got to be the world’s most distinctive and impossible unit of measurement.
The very form of the Easter Vigil reminds us that God works slowly. It reminds us that, even when we feel we are trapped in a time of endless waiting or wandering aimlessly in the desert, we are accompanied, that all of God’s work ever so gradually replaces the darkness with light, silence with bells, dry wells with water. All emptiness eventually gives way to Alleluia.
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Kerry Weber is an executive editor for America.
With thanks to America and Kerry Weber, where this article originally appeared.