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It is tempting to skip straight from Good Friday to Easter Sunday! However, early Christians would typically reserve Holy Saturday as a final day of prayer and penance, patiently waiting at the tomb for Jesus’ resurrection.
Holy Saturday is another one of those unique days in the liturgical calendar where the Church invites us into this intense period of “waiting,” a time that is still marked with mourning, but is on the edge of rejoicing.
Here are 3 fast facts about Holy Saturday and how the Church has celebrated it.
Historians believe that Holy Saturday was also a day that did not have a Mass. Instead, Christians held an all-night vigil that started in the middle of the night on Saturday and didn’t end until the first rays of dawn when the celebration of Mass began on Easter morning.
Author Herbert Thurston gives a brief explanation in his book, Lent and Holy Week.
[T]he Mass which is now sung on Holy Saturday … was not originally a Mass for Holy Saturday at all, but coming at the end of the long ceremonies of the great vigil, was in reality the midnight Mass of Easter Sunday. Probably in the earliest stage of the celebration this point was not reached until long after midnight, when the day was already beginning to break. There was every reason then why the joyous exultation of the Resurrection should find its first expression there. Theoretically Holy Saturday, like Good Friday, was an ‘aliturgical’ day, a day without a Mass.
The liturgy was eventually shortened and pushed back earlier in the evening, becoming the Easter Vigil that we celebrate today.
In many churches a custom developed of creating a tomb or bier on which was placed a statue of Jesus’ corpse, and the lay faithful were then encouraged to remain in prayer before the sorrowful tomb. For most of history there were few, if any, public liturgies before the Easter Vigil, leaving the church completely silent from Good Friday afternoon all the way until the late evening hours of Holy Saturday.
For many centuries there was even a strict fast on Holy Saturday, permitting no food to be eaten in observance of this painful day. Many would stay in the church throughout the night of Good Friday, keeping Jesus company in the tomb.
A homily from the 2nd century confirms this general atmosphere in the church, “What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.”
We all know that Jesus rose on the third day, but what happened in between? In fact, we profess every Sunday that Jesus, “descended into Hell,” or as it is sometimes translated, “descended to the dead.”
The Catechism offers some clarity on this much-misunderstood topic.
Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” — Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek — because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.“The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to the Easter Vigil