Whitehorse is the largest city in northern Canada and sits along the Alaska Highway in southern Yukon. At this latitude, the city gets about 20 hours of daylight during the summer.
In 2004, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops sent out the start times for the Easter Vigil in the various areas of Canada until the year 2020. In following the Roman Missal directive that says that “the Easter Vigil must take place during the night, so that it begins after nightfall…” the bishops wanted to be sure that it was “dark enough” before each parish began its Easter Vigil liturgy.
So be glad that you don’t live in Whitehorse (or for that matter, almost anywhere in Alaska which is further north in latitude) because if you did, you’d be starting the Easter Vigil this year at 10:28 pm! In 2019, be sure to get in a nap because you’ll be starting the Easter Vigil at 11:25 pm!
Why is darkness so important for the Easter Vigil?
Have you ever had the experience of knowing that what someone was saying or doing was not true, even though they were saying the right words or doing the prescribed actions? Parents know this well when they demand their older child apologize to her younger brother for some infraction. The apology isn’t always that genuine, and the two kids keep picking on one another as soon as the parent turns her back on them.
Hopefully you’ve experienced the opposite and have had the privilege of witnessing a couple exchange wedding vows with one another. Knowing how they’ve struggled in their relationship yet have grown even more in love and committed to each other, you know in your entire body that they mean every word they say in those vows. They aren’t empty words but are true words.
When liturgy is celebrated well and our “minds are attuned to our voices” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #11), the words we say become “performative.” That means that the words we say and the actions we do in the liturgy matter and actually happen because they are true, and Jesus is the Truth.
In the Easter Vigil, the first Truth we encounter of the Risen Christ is that the Light of Christ dispels the darkness of our hearts and minds (Roman Missal, The Easter Vigil, #14). We can’t visibly see our hearts and minds being illuminated, so we need a symbol or a sacramental, something tangible that manifests in an outward way what we understand is happening in an unseen, inward manner. Therefore, there must be darkness—lots of it, for God knows how dark the human mind and heart can get. Furthermore, it needs to be “natural” darkness, darkness we can’t control with a switch, for the darkness of sin cannot be broken by human effort but only by God’s action. The corollary to this is that there must be lots of light, natural light, the light that comes from sacrifice. Therefore, we don’t light the Paschal Candle with a lighter. Rather we burn wood, a living thing cut down in order to give light and life. And we gather close to that light with faith that Christ is the Light dispelling the darkness of our world.
When you wait for complete darkness and light a fire that shatters it, all from the youngest toddler yet unschooled in our faith to the most marginal of Christians who has forgotten the power of his faith will be drawn to that light. You wouldn’t need to explain why, for the human need for light when darkness is all around is one way God draws all people closer to himself on this most holy of nights. All we have to do is build upon what God has already begun to illuminate in each person’s heart.
So this Easter Vigil, don’t be tempted to cut corners on darkness, because when you do, you are really shortchanging the light.