The Church often uses symbolism in its expression of faith.
Symbols often speak to us more directly than ideas and enable us to experience our faith with our whole being. However, some understanding of the symbols is useful. I will focus only on the highly symbolic elements of the Vigil.
No other time is as rich in symbolism as the Easter Vigil, the most solemn celebration of the Christian year. For the first three centuries, Easter, the only feast observed, was an all-night vigil so the symbolism was even more powerful.
The Easter Vigil begins in darkness, representing all that is devoid of light, all that is hidden and secret. Enter into the darkness in our world and in your heart: dishonesty, divisiveness, unawareness of Christ's presence in us, a failure to be Christ to the world. Also remember the years the darkened world awaited the one true light, Christ.
A flicker of hope
But wait! All is not lost. There is a glimmer of hope as a flicker of fire appears. For the Hebrews, fire was symbolic of God's protection and guidance. Fire conveys awe and power, as well as cleansing. To signify its newness and purity, it should be lit in the most natural way possible. Its symbolism is given in the prayers: "Make this new fire holy and inflame us with new hope. Purify our minds. Bring us to eternal light."
The primary visual symbol at the Vigil is the paschal candle. Made of pure beeswax, the candle is a fitting symbol of Christ resurrected.
The cross, the instrument of inglorious death, is carved into this victorious symbol of Christ. The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega represent Christ, the beginning and end of all things. The digits of the current year are placed in the four quadrants of the cross indicating that all time belongs to Christ, as well as placing the year under Christ's protection.
Grains of incense are inserted on the cross, honouring the five wounds of Christ. Christ never failed to connect his suffering with his glorification, especially in John's Gospel. And we must do the same.
The candle, lit from the new fire is carried in procession while "Christ the Light" is chanted three times, each time with a greater intensity and higher pitch with the candle raised higher each time. These are meant to convey the profound significance of the Paschal candle representing the resurrected Christ.
The people respond "Thanks be to God." All present receive the light of Christ from the paschal candle, tangibly experiencing Christ's power as the light grows stronger and dissipates the darkness.
Then, is sung a prayerful and glorious Exultet of praise and thanksgiving for the Light of Christ which dispels the darkness. I'd suggest, before the Vigil, to read the Exultet thoughtfully so you can enter more fully into it at the Vigil.
Incense, lit with charcoal from the new fire, is used to incense the paschal candle. The burning of incense signifies our zeal for God's work; its fragrance, the virtue we offer to God; the rising smoke, our prayer acceptable to God.
Water is blest. The prayer speaks about the spiritual significance of water: the Spirit breathing on the water at creation making it the wellspring of holiness; the flood which, like the waters of Baptism, cleansed sin; the Red Sea through which the Israelites were led from slavery to be God's people; the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan; the water and blood from Jesus' side on the cross; and Jesus' command to baptize with water.
When the paschal candle is plunged into the water, we experience the meaning of our Baptism, the dying and rising to a new life with and in Christ.
Keep the flame alive
Following the early Church's practice, new Christians are baptized and confirmed. They are then presented with candles, lit from the paschal candle, with the admonition to keep the flame alive in their hearts.
The community is sprinkled with newly blessed water and renew their baptismal promises. The initiation into Christ of the newly baptized provides an impetus to the revitalization of the whole Christian community.
Rejoice is the message of this night. The darkness has been overcome by the light of Christ. A fire is ablaze in our hearts, saving and cleansing waters flow through our lives, all creation celebrates the power of God's redemption. Rejoice!