RALEIGH, N.C. – Although he frequently contributes articles to academic journals and faith-based blogs, James Sabak, OFM, became a first-time book author with last month’s release of “‘Vigilemus et Oremus’: The Theological Significance of ‘Keeping Vigil’ in Rome from the Fourth to the Eighth Centuries.” The book is a captivating journey through hundreds of years of the liturgical practice of keeping vigil in early Roman tradition and its theological significance in contemporary liturgical encounter.
“We have all these practices and traditions, yet we know very little about the precise elements which comprise a vigil liturgy and their theological significance – and, consequently, very little appreciation and understanding of their roots – how they came to be, their original intent, and their purpose in our faith,” said Jim, whose book unravels one of the Church’s most primitive structures and misunderstood traditions.
Vigilemus et Oremus, meaning “Watch and Pray,” is the latest release in the book series called “Studia Traditionis Theologiae” (“Studies of Traditions in Theology”), a 42-volume collection of the Belgium-based, international academic publishing house, Brepols Publishers, that explores the traditions and cultures of early and medieval Church and theology.
The more than 400-page book is available at Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, alalibris.com, brepolsonline.net, and other e-commerce websites.
Jim hopes to get readers to “think more authentically” of what it means to keep vigil.
“The Christian mindset of vigil anticipates a fulfillment. It moves from anticipatory and expected joy to the realization of that joy – and the biggest joy is the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Second Coming. Vigil connects us to that understanding,” he explained.
“That’s why vigils are experiences of profound hope, and not just wishful thinking,” Jim said during a phone interview from his office at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, North Carolina, where since 2017 he has served as director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Diocese of Raleigh, and as director of religious education at The Franciscan School, the largest Catholic elementary school in the state.
Dissertation, Inspiration, and Procrastination Turn into Book Deal
The book was inspired by Jim’s core work for his dissertation on vigil liturgies while completing his doctorate degree in sacramental theology and liturgy at The Catholic University of America. It was the encouragement from his professors, along with his passion and determination to provide a better understanding of the Paschal Vigil (the “mother of all vigils,” according to St. Augustine), that led to converting his dissertation into a book manuscript.
But it was a fortuitous encounter with a Brepols editor at a 2017 international academic conference in Belgium that made the book a reality. “You never know who you’re going to be sitting next to at dinner,” said Jim, who recalled a casual conversation during which the editor asked him if he had authored any books.
So intrigued by Jim’s description of his manuscript on vigils, the editor asked him to send the document as soon as he returned to the States. But with a busy ministry schedule, and admittedly some procrastination on his part, Jim never got around to sending the manuscript. However, this book was meant to be.
Jim, who throughout his academic ministry has been a professor at Catholic University, the Franciscan School of Theology, and Providence College, ran into the same editor the following year at an international academic conference in the cathedral city of Durham, England. The persistent but clearly irritated editor – annoyed that Jim had never forwarded the manuscript – said the invitation still stood. This time, Jim followed through on the opportunity.
The company’s editorial board called it a terrific read and made it the 42nd volume in the Brepols series on the studies of traditions in theology. It is the only book in the collection that examines the nature of Roman vigil liturgies in the early centuries of Christianity.
Easter Vigil Most Important Liturgy, But Not Oldest
Jim discovered that liturgical sources of the sixth to the eighth centuries reveal that the practice of vigils surrounding Easter, Pentecost, saints’ days, and other celebrations became relatively standardized with specific Mass texts and scriptural readings assigned to each. These vigils were so important that they attracted the celebration of major sacramental liturgies – hence, the Paschal Vigil, which existed for centuries as a vigil liturgy of scriptural readings and prayers, according to Jim, but gradually became the setting for the annual baptismal celebration of welcoming newcomers into the Church.
In the book, he asserts that the Easter Vigil is the most important liturgy of the Church, but observes that this point is lost on Catholics who don’t understand that it is a liturgical practice that helps them remember the promises that God makes of the Second Coming and eternal life.
“We are walking with God when we precede Easter Sunder with the Easter Vigil – which is why we baptize at that liturgy. It tells us not to lose hope and to keep moving forward with God. If we don’t listen at the vigil, all we hear [on Easter Sunday] is that the tomb is empty,” said Jim, who serves as chair of the American Franciscan Liturgical Commission and is a member of the executive committee of the North American Academy of Liturgy.
As significant as it is, the Easter Vigil, says the author, is mistakenly considered the oldest of the Church’s annual celebrations. But in the book, he notes that it was preceded by Ember days (or Embertides), periods of prayer and fasting during each of the four seasons of the year in the liturgical calendar of Western Christian churches as a way of the faithful thanking God for the gifts of nature and assisting the needy.
“It is a part of the Church calendar that, up to the Second Vatican Council, had been suppressed. These week-long observances would happen at seasonal turns of the summer and winter solstice, and the spring and fall equinox. This goes back to something that was ancient, before Christianity and pre-dating daily Mass, and was adapted by the Roman Church,” explained Jim, a contributor to PrayTell blog.
Vigil a Pause for Reflection
According to the book, the process would begin on Sunday; then on Wednesday and Friday, people would hear the Word of God, followed by a Saturday nocturnal vigil that would conclude with a Eucharistic celebration at dawn on Sunday. The book says these seasonal changes were a cosmologically powerful moment and awareness of the awesomeness of God.
“People took the week to reflect on what God was doing for them. This charted the series of scripture readings and was a powerful manifestation of God. To be able to remember, experience, and live this was important to the molding and psyche of the early Christians,” said Jim, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1994.
“Unfortunately, the practice of vigils and their meaning has been lost. The scriptures haven’t changed, but vigil has been diverted and turned into weeks of penitence, robbing us of the earthly anchor to redemption, salvation, and revelation. In the contemporary context, a vigil is being used as memorial lamentations after a tragic event. But a vigil is not about lighting candles against the backdrop of darkness and tragedy,” explained Jim, whose book also explores the deep meaning of the nighttime liturgy.
The night was something terrifying, prohibitive, and full of celebrations, some of which became scandalous. But vigil retrieved the sanctity of night because God himself said, “out of the darkness, let there be light,” according to the book.
“Vigil is a reminder of the basic fact of how God operates. Vigil is cosmologically related – the changing of the seasons, the movement of the sun, stars, and moon. Those are the kinds of things that connected well in the western Church in terms of context and understanding. The origins of understanding the way evening gives way to day, and darkness to light, and death to rebirth, are found in the Roman Church,” explained Jim, a frequent contributor to the academic journals Worship, Studia Liturgica, and Horizons, and to the Liturgical Press blog – for which he writes in a pastorally applicable style on a range of topics, from the meaning behind celebrating All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days to perspectives on Advent, Lent, and societal issues like the global pandemic.
Remembering, Listening, and Receiving
Jim makes the argument that Embertide vigils were not based on imitating agrarian models of pre-Christian Roman practices, but rather on an eschatological rendering – that is, beliefs about death, judgment, and eternal life – of the year, punctuated by the solstices and equinoxes, thus underscoring the eschatological significance of all liturgical vigils.
“With vigil, we are remembering, recounting, listening actively, and receiving something from the Word of God. At its core, vigil is a Word-of-God service – a celebration of God’s words to us through scripture,” he said.
Many Catholics also confuse Saturday evening Mass with being a vigil.
“We call it a vigil, but it’s not a vigil Mass. It came into existence to accommodate people who couldn’t get to Mass on Sunday morning because they worked. A vigil liturgy is very different than the liturgy that follows the next day. A real Saturday vigil liturgy would precede Sunday Mass with different readings and prayers – just as the unique experience of the Easter Vigil leads to Easter Sunday,” he explained.
Jim is already thinking about a sequel to his book, one that would expand and further delve into the meaning of vigil from the perspective of addressing pain, suffering, and hurt – the subject of one of his recent articles.
“As believers, we are not supposed to wish away suffering, but rather see how suffering can make sense. This is a great challenge and struggle because we live in a world that tries to fix everything. Vigil brings an understanding of why suffering exists and what we can learn from it,” said Jim.
“Suffering is not the last word. Vigil embraces hope and memory; it’s not blind optimism. We remember that God the Son went through suffering to gain resurrection and new life,” Jim continued. “How does this become more of a reality in our own lives and something that we can relate to? This is what vigil can do for us.”
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s note: Information about books written by other HNP members can be found on the Franciscan Artists and Authors page of HNP.org.
- “Meet the Priests: Father Jim Sabak, OFM” – Diocese of Raleigh website
- “Reflection: Francis, Four Years Later” by Jim Sabak, OFM — March 28, 2017, HNP Today