John Gayford looks at the Paschal Mystery in liturgy and concept


Since the Second Vatican Council the concept of the Paschal Mystery has been revaluated and expanded to become a central concept of the Catholic Faith as the essential aspect of Christian redemption. Salvation, redemption and atonement are mysteries and can be equated with the Paschal Mystery. They, as the mystery of the Holy Trinity, can never be explained by human reason. The Orthodox Churches at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD spent much time trying to define the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity but had to agree this was a divine mystery known only to God with humanity only having glimpses of the divine majesty. The Western Church has spent more time over the centuries discussing salvation under its various names but coming to the conclusion this too is also a divine mystery of which we can only have pointers. The Paschal Mystery is therefore best understood in connection with the entire sweep of salvation history including Salvator Mundi and the whole process of redemption. The concept of Paschal Mystery has also spread to the Incarnation and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

There is an Old Testament background to Paschal Mystery as in Exodus 12:26-27, where the Angel of the Lord spared the Israelites in Egypt, associated with the ritual meal of a lamb. This can be seen as a prelude to the work of Christ. Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God. The Jewish Passover has been given Christological interpretation in what Our Blessed Lord did in his act of salvation. This is a mystery as it is beyond human understanding and can only be revealed by Almighty God.

The document Paschalis Mysterii issued by Pope Paul VI in 1969 reordered the liturgical year and states it facilitates the faithful to communicate in a more intense way, through faith, hope and love with the whole mystery of Christ. Liturgy is there to assist in this process. This process reaches its fulfilment at the feast of Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit when the Preface says: Today you send the Holy Spirit on those marked out to be your children by sharing the life of your only Son, and so you brought the Paschal Mystery to completion.

Easter became the feast of feasts or the Solemnity of Solemnities. The discussion crystallised around Sunday as the day on which Easter was celebrated. From then every Sunday became a celebration of the Paschal Mystery, later embracing every celebration of the Eucharist. From Patristic times the period after Easter was devoted to the Mystagogical Catechesis (interpretation of the mysteries) not only for the newly baptised but for all the faithful.

St Augustine of Hippo called the Easter Vigil the mother of all vigils and it has also been called the mystery of salvation and is the night when the mystery of the death of Christ and his resurrection is acted out in liturgy. It is therefore logical we concentrate on this nocturnal celebration which can be celebrated between sunset on the Saturday before Easter Sunday and before sunrise on Easter Sunday. In the early church this was a time for baptism and still is an ideal time liturgically especially for adult baptisms. Historically there has been variation of time of celebration and ways of celebrating this liturgy. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have long Easter Vigil liturgies which tend to start around mid-night and go on until 3-4 am. The Book of Common Prayer shows that the Easter Vigil was completely removed from Anglican liturgy at the Reformation. The Catholic Revival in the Anglican Church in the 19th century reintroduced this rite, but the path was difficult. Tractarians wanted its reintroduction but liturgy of this type was illegal in England, with priests being sent to prison as late as 1875 and liturgy being disrupted by protesters in the early part of the 20th century. Various altar Missals were produced adapting the Roman Rite for Anglican use. Now most Anglicans have a realisation that the concept of the Paschal Mystery is Biblically focused, in which we dramatically rehearse and relive these historical events with a complex devotional liturgy. The Paschal Vigil (that holy night) is the summation of the passion, resurrection and glorification of Jesus the Son of God. As would be expected there are differences among Anglicans and the Roman formats which have themselves changed in the 20th century. Now the vestments are white or Gold as for Mass throughout the liturgy without having to change from purple. 

Churches of the Reformation like the Methodist Church combine a Service of Light, a Service of Word, Service of Baptism and a Service of the Table into a liturgy to make an Easter Vigil Service. Participation in the Easter Vigil in the Anglican Church is often disappointing for so great a Solemnity. Since the introduction of Common Worship options have been introduced to broaden the appeal with lighting a candle, prayers, Bible reading and reaffirming Baptismal promises, leaving Holy Communion to Easter Sunday. In catholic worship the liturgy has long been divided into a service of light, a Baptismal service and a Mass. 

For modern Anglo-Catholics, the liturgy starts outside the church around a fire. The priest should greet the people and explains the meaning of the vigil. The fire is blessed and the Easter candle is prepared originally using a stylus to cut a cross and the number of the current year. For practical reasons this is often marked with a transfer and the priest with his finger points as he says, Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the End, the Alpha, and Omega, All times belong to him, and all ages, to him be glory and power, through every age and for ever, Amen. Five grains of incense are inserted into the candle in the form of a cross as the priest says by his holy, and glorious wounds, may Christ the Lord, guard and protect us, Amen. The Paschal Candle is then lit from the new fire while the priest says may the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds. After incense has been has been prepared there is a procession into the darkened church led by the Paschal Candle. There are three stations where The Light of Christ sung then the Paschal Candle is placed on its stand. The procession represent the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness following the pillar of fire and we are reminded of Our Lord’s words I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness (St John 8:12). This signifies Jesus coming into our darkened lives.

The Solemn Exsultet is then sung which is a song of exultation of heaven and earth to Christ Our Almighty King. It is a rite of sanctification of light and night, of place and time, of priest and faithful to celebrate the resurrection of Our Blessed Lord. It can be described as a sacramental full of symbolism and theological meaning sung in beautiful cadences of Gregorian chant. When sung in either Latin or English by a well-tuned light voice it is a liturgical gem. The phrase Haec nox est (This is the night) is repeated four times, when Israel was delivered from Egypt, when the darkness of sin is banished, when we are led to grace and when Christ broke the bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.

Then follows the liturgy of the word with seven Old Testament readings which may be reduced to two but this should include the crossing of the Red Sea from Exodus. Each reading is followed by a canticle which may be a delight to skilled Gregorian chant singers but is more usually replaced with simpler English setting of Psalmody. Each canticle is followed by a collect. The liturgy of the word concludes with the Gloria (usually preceded by the ringing of bells) the Collect, Epistle, Alleluia, Gospel and Homily.

With a litany the Paschal Candle leads us to the font for the blessing of water (which may be said or sung), a possible Baptism, renewing of baptismal promises and sprinkling with holy water by the priest while the Vidi aquam (I saw water flowing from the Temple) or other appropriate music is sung. The procession returns to the sanctuary with a hymn or completion of the litany. Sacramental Confirmation would lead the newly baptised into Communion. It is appropriate if they can bring the bread and wine to the altar. The Offertory leads us into the first Mass of Easter. The prayer over the Offering brings us back to the paschal mystery that what has begun in the paschal mysteries may bring us the healing of eternity. The Easter Preface is that of the Paschal Mystery concluding, therefore overcome with paschal joy, every land, every people exult in your praise. If Eucharistic Prayer I is used there is a proper Communicantes (Hanc igitur) “Father, accept this offering from your whole family and those born into the new life of water and the Holy Spirit, with all their sins forgiven”. Pascha nostrum is the Easter Communion antiphon (Christ our Paschal Lamb) and concludes the liturgy. There can be no doubt that this Easter Vigil liturgy focuses on the paschal mysteries to give the experience of communal joy in our worship and that we are nourished by this paschal sacrament in mind and heart. 

Lack of resources and the fact that this liturgy is only undertaken once a year leads regrettably but inevitably to imperfections. Nevertheless there should be no surprise when we hear that some in the early church thought it would be during this liturgy that the second coming of Christ would occur. While this may not literally be true it should be a spiritual experience. In the liturgy of the Vigil of Easter we are shown that the history of salvation extends from eternity to eternity.

Mass on Easter Sunday may include Victimae Paschali laudes immolent Christiani (Christian to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises). This is a short Easter Sequence that is one of the four mediaeval sequences preserved in the Roman Missal of 1570 after the Council of Trent and can be sung after the Alleluia on Easter Sunday. It sings well in both Latin and English Gregorian chant (EH 519). This sequence in Latin is usually attributed to the 11th century Wipe of Burgundy who was chaplain to the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. In this Mary Magdalene is asked what she saw, and speaks, “The tomb of Christ who is living. The glory of Jesu’s Resurrection: Bright angels attesting. The shroud and napkin resting. Yes, Christ my hope is arisen; to Galilee he goes before you”. It ends by telling us we have obtained a new life. Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere: tu nobis victor Rex, miserere. Amen. Alleluia. “We saw Christ risen truly from the dead: victor King, have mercy on us. Amen. Alleluia.” 


Suggested further reading:-

Austin, G. Paschal Mystery. In the New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality edited by Downey, M. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press Collegeville, Minnesota. 1993.

Empereus, J.L. Paschal Mystery. In the New Dictionary of Theology edited by Komonchak, J.A., Collins, M. and Lane, D.A. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press Collegeville, Minnesota. 1987.

Journel, P. The Celebration of the Holy Night in the Church at Prayer (Volume IV the Liturgy and Time) edited by Martimort, A.G. (New Edition) The Liturgical Press Collegeville, Minnesota. 1986.


Outline of the Easter Vigil Liturgy


Part One –The Solemn Blessing of the Vigil or Lucernarium Ceremony of light

  1. The blessing of the Fire and Preparation of the Candle.
  2. The Procession into the Dark Church led by the Candle.
  3. The Easter Proclamation Praeconium Paschale (Exsultet).


Part Two-The Liturgy of the Word

There were four Old Testament lessons now increased to seven. Not all need to be used except (3) the Crossing of the Red Sea which is mandatory


  1. Creation (Genesis 1-2:2)

Canticle Jubilate Domino Praise the Lord, (or vs.from Psalm 104).

  1. The Sacrifice of Abraham (Genesis 2:1-18).

Canticle Qui confidunt They who trust, or verses from Psalm 16

  1. Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:14-15:1).

Canticle Cantemus Domino Let us sing to the Lord, or verses from Exodus 15.

  1. The New Jerusalem (Isaiah 54:5-14).

Canticle Laudate Dominum Praise the Lord, or verses from Psalm 130.

  1. Salvation Freely Offered (Isaiah 55:1-11).

Canticle Vinea  factus est He became a vine, or verses from Isaiah 12.

  1. The Fountain of Wisdom (Barack 3:9-15). 

Canticle Attende caelum Attend O heaven, or verses from Psalm 19.

  1. A New Heart and a New Spirit (Ezekiel 36:16-28).

Canticle Sicut cervus As the deer or verses from Psalm 43 and 43.

Gloria (with ringing of bells)


Epistle- Romans 6:3-11

Alleluia and verses

Gospel Readings in three year cycle



Part Three –The Baptismal Liturgy

Procession to the Font led by the Paschal Candle.

Traditionally the Litany of the Saints is sung.

The Blessing of the baptismal Water may be said or sung.

During which the Paschal candle is lowered into the water.

The Vidi aquam is sung.  I saw water

Baptism with anointing may take place.

Baptismal Promises are renewed by all

All are sprinkled with Holy Water

There is a return to the sanctuary


Part Four –The First Mass of Easter

This starts with the Offertory Dextera Domini The right hand of the Lord. Often replaced by a hymn as the celebrant goes to the Altar to prepare for the Eucharist in the usual way.

The creed is not said as its contents have been covered in the renewal of Baptismal Promises

Bread and wine are brought forward if possible by the newly baptised or their representatives.

Preface I (The Paschal Mystery) is used with the words on this night.

When Eucharistic prayer I is used there is a proper form said of Communicantes and Hanc igitur therefore this offering.

Communion antiphon Pascha nostrum Our Easter Lamb. . Special Solemn Alleluia