(Lat. vigilia, ‘wakefulness’, ‘watch’), a service held at night, and by extension used of the day before a festival. From an early date the Paschal Vigil Service comprised a lengthy series of readings and culminated in a Eucharist at dawn. When, in the 4th cent., Baptism was also administered at Whitsun, a similar Vigil emerged. By this time there is also evidence of regular weekly Vigils, on Saturday night to Sunday morning or perhaps from early on Sunday morning; such Vigils were popular services of prayer which reached their climax in the reading of the Gospel account of the Resurrection. Vigils on other occasions also became popular. In some places the Vigil took the form of an extension to Vespers; in others the morning Office was extended backwards into the early hours.
From the 8th cent. it became common to anticipate the Vigil on the evening of the previous day, and the Vigil was gradually put back to the morning of that day. Many feasts came to have a Vigil, which was little more than a special Mass on the previous day. The RC calendar of 1969 retained only the Easter Vigil, but special texts are provided for an evening Mass on the days before certain feasts and there are some texts for the Vigils of Sundays and festivals in the 1971 Breviary.
Belief that the Parousia would take place at midnight may have influenced the early monks of Egypt. When they came to live in communities, they spent much of the night in prayer and psalmody. The urban based ascetics apparently assembled for prayer and the recitation of Psalms before the public services at dawn. The Psalms came to be interspersed with readings. The monastic Offices and those of the non-monastic churches influenced each other. The Rule of St Benedict refers to the night Office as ‘vigiliae’.
In the E. Church the Vigil service (consisting of Vespers, Apodeipnon, Midnight Office, and Orthros) has retained its importance. In monasteries major Vigils are celebrated solemnly and at length.