TITLE VI.—THE OFFICE OF VIGILS.
Etymology, nature and synonyms. The word vigil is from the Latin vigilare, to keep awake, to watch,
because in old times the night before any great event, religious or
worldly, was spent in watching. Thus, the night prior to ordination to
the priesthood, the night prior to a great battle, was spent in
watching before the altar. Hence, the word vigil came to mean the
prayers said during the time of watching or waking, preparatory to the
great event. It signified, too, the fast accompanying the watching, and
lastly it came to mean the liturgical office of Mass and Breviary fixed
for the time of vigilance. In the Roman Church it was sometimes called
the nocturn or night office. The Greeks call the vigil profesta, the time before the feast.
The custom existed among the pagans, almost universally, before the
time of Christ. The Jews practised this ancient night prayer, as the
scripture in several places shows, "in noctibus extollite manus vestras in sancta"
(Psalm 133). Our Saviour sanctified this use by His example, and the
early Christians were, on account of these night assemblies, the
objects of fear and dread, of admiration and of hatred. Organised
vigils lasted till the thirteenth century in some countries, but owing
to abuses and discord they became not a source of edification, but the
occasion and cause of grave scandals, and were forbidden gradually and
universally. The Church now retains for the faithful one congregational
vigil, the vigil of Christmas. Formerly, it was customary to observe a
fast on a day or night of a vigil, but that custom was suppressed
sometimes, or fell into disuse. Vigil fasts are now few. Almost the
only relic of the vigil now remaining is the Mass and Office.
When were vigils held? In the early ages they were held only on
Saturday nights and on nights preceding great solemnities or the
festivals of the Martyrs. The early converts, if they had been pagans,
knew few or no prayer formulae, and very little of the psalms was
learned by them even in their Christian practice. But Jews who became
Christians knew psalms and hymns and prayers. So that in the early
Christian vigils, there was no attempt made at reciting the Divine
Office, and the custom of such recitation was not introduced until
about 220 A.D. and was not obligatory (Duchesne, Christian Worship, Chap. VIII.).
It is difficult to speak with certainty about the hour of beginning or
the hour of ending these vigil services. Some think that the first
nocturn was said about 9 p.m. Lauds was said before sunrise and hence
was called Laudes-matutinae. But "after the middle of the
ninth century, we gather from contemporary documents, that the office
of vigils was, as a whole, regularly constituted and well known"
(Baudot, p.64). These vigils were held in cenacles or upper rooms of
houses. During the days of persecution these meetings were not
infrequent and were held secretly in crypts, catacombs, private houses
and at martyrs' tombs. In times of peace they were held everywhere, in
churches, monasteries, castles.
Vigils are divided into
two classes, major and minor; major vigils are the vigils of Christmas,
Epiphany and Pentecost, and they are called privileged vigils and are
celebrated as semi-doubles. The vigils of Christmas and Pentecost are
privileged vigils of the first class. The vigil of Epiphany is a
privileged vigil of the second class. All others are minor or
SECTION: Title VII.—Octaves.
Title V.—Ferial Office.