Mourning to morning: The Church's journey from Holy Saturday to Easter joy

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron inscribes the Paschal Candle, which bears the symbols for "Alpha" and "Omega" along with the current year, signifying Christ's lordship over the entire year and all of creation in his resurrection from the grave, during the Easter vigil at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit in April 2023. The Holy Saturday silence, which breaks into glorious song during the Easter vigil, is the Church's beautiful liturgical expression of the timeless love story of God's saving power in Jesus Christ. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Morning Mass is not celebrated anywhere in the world on Holy Saturday. Sorrowfully, the Church Universal pauses in her liturgical life, recalling the forty hours when Jesus was dead and buried. Altars, stripped on Holy Thursday, remain bare; candles and decorations removed.

The Church is in mourning.

No one genuflects entering or leaving a church because Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is gone, the tabernacle door flung open to display His absence. The Blessed Sacrament, temporarily reserved in the sacristy, may be given only as Holy Viaticum to the dying.

The Church is in mourning.

The crucifix alone remains enthroned in the sanctuary, a witness to how much God so loved the world: “O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave You gave away Your Son.” Throughout the day Catholics are invited to ponder the depths of this mystery prayerfully tarrying at the tomb of Jesus our Savior.

The Paschal Vigil (from Pascha, Aramaic for “Passover”) is regarded as the "mother of all holy vigils" since the yearly anniversary of the Resurrection goes back to the beginning of the Church’s existence. However, it was not always smooth sailing.

In Rome, Catholics followed the tradition established by the apostles Sts. Peter and Paul. Since Jesus rose from the grave on Sunday, they celebrated Christ’s Resurrection on the Sunday following Passover. The bishops of Asia Minor, following the tradition of the apostles Sts. Philip and John, commemorated the Crucifixion and Resurrection together on the same day, the 14th of Nisan, the first day of Passover per the Jewish lunar calendar on whatever day it fell.

Around the late 180s, numerous synods of bishops answered the call of Pope St. Victor I, sending word that they, too, celebrated the Resurrection on Sunday. Seeking liturgical unity, Victor somewhat tactlessly demanded that St. Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, the leading diocese of Asia Minor, instruct all the other bishops of the region to follow the Roman practice. They refused. Victor threatened the bishops with excommunication. The excommunication was withdrawn as the churches of Asia Minor remained in communion with Rome.

This squabble is known to history as the Quartodeciman (Greek: “Fourteeners”) Controversy. The dispute lingered until finally resolved in 325 at the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa in favor of the Roman procedure.

The last part of Holy Week is known by its Latin name, the Triduum, encompassing one liturgical action occurring over three days: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and concluding with the ceremonies of the Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday. Over the centuries, the Paschal Vigil gradually moved from its original, nocturnal time to the afternoon, then to midmorning. The exalted ceremonies were timed to culminate at noon with the first Mass of the Resurrection.

In 1953, Pope Pius XII restored celebration of the Paschal Vigil to the evening hours according to the ancient tradition. The liturgy was to start around 9 at night so that the first Solemn High Mass of the Resurrection would begin at midnight, ending around 1:30 a.m.

During the 1950s and ‘60s when I served Mass at Christ the King parish in Hollywood, my older brother Sandy and I would arrive around 8:30 with 10 other servers, along with six little boys who would be torchbearers. All of us donned red cassocks and white surplices.

We had spent that afternoon rehearsing cues for our roles during the special ceremonies: when to stand, when to kneel, and when to process from the altar to the baptistry and back. The older boys handled processional cross and candles, incense boat and thurible. They showed the younger ones when to bring out the holy water aspergil and bucket; when to ring the bells for the Gloria, and how use the patens for reception of Holy Communion.

We were glad to rehearse, knowing that God deserved our best efforts.

The Guide to the Rubrics states clearly:

93. The Easter Vigil Liturgy should be celebrated in such a way as to offer Christian people the riches of the prayers and rites. It is therefore important that authenticity be respected, that the participation of the faithful be promoted, and that the celebration should not take place without servers, readers and choir exercising their roles.

The structure of the present order of the Paschal Vigil is arranged in four segments: Although the present rubrics allow for an earlier celebration of the Easter Vigil, the time is left optional. It "should not begin before nightfall; it should end before daybreak on Sunday.”

Celebration of Christ as the Light of the World (Lucernarium)

While St. Cyril of Jerusalem, circa 360, spoke of this night as being bright as day, the ceremony of the New Fire kindled on the Easter Vigil possibly dates to 432, when St. Patrick, sent to convert the people of Ireland, built a gigantic bonfire to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection as a challenge to a Druid ritual in which the king alone could light a bonfire before any other fire. The tradition came to Europe in the 700s with Irish monks and, by the 1100s, the custom had become part of the Roman liturgy.

The large Paschal Candle is inscribed with a cross, the Greek initials Alpha and Omega and the present year. It is then lit from the New Fire burning outside church. As the clerics and servers enter the church, “Lumen Christi!” or “The Light of Christ!” is intoned three times. The congregation answers, “Deo gratias!” or “Thanks be to God!”

At each pause the flame is shared, first with the candles of the servers and then to those of the assembly. Arriving at the sanctuary, the Paschal Candle is placed in its special stand and the Exsultet is proclaimed. This hymn magnificently expresses our joy knowing Christ to be risen from the dead and we hear, “O happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam which has gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

Lessons from the Old Testament, with Epistle and Gospel Extracts

The congregation extinguish their candles while sitting to hear the readings, “lessons,” starting with Genesis when God said, “Let there be light.” Further lessons remind us how God blessed Abraham; led the Children of Israel across the Red Sea; how God’s love will never be withdrawn; how God bids us walk in His light; and that God will replace our stony hearts if we turn to Him. Interspersed between the lessons are beautiful psalms.

Following the lessons, the church lights come on; statues shrouded in purple are unveiled; the hymn "Gloria in excelsis" is sung, the bells ringing throughout. Then the celebrant proclaims the collect, and the liturgy proceeds with readings from the New Testament.

We learn from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that we have been baptized into the death of Jesus, only to rise with Him in glory. The Gospel recounts the women at the tomb encountering an angel who tells them, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He is risen.”

The Liturgy of Baptism

The blessing of the baptismal water takes place. In the lessons we saw how God saved the Israelites through water. Now “Christ's Passover is given full expression at the baptismal font.” There, infants, children and adults are baptized, becoming members in the Body of Christ.

Following the baptisms, everyone’s candles are relit from the Paschal Candle, and the celebrant calls for the faithful to renew their own baptismal vows. We are sprinkled with holy water so we might recall our own baptism.

Celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

The first Solemn Mass of the Resurrection continues with incense, wondrous chants or hymns, and the clergy attired in the parish’s most beautiful vestments celebrating with prayerful gravity. While white is the color of the day, the splendor of gold vestments is appropriate.

May you be inspired with the splendor of the love of Jesus this Easter. The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Sean M. Wright, MA, award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated television writer and Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita. He responds to comments sent to [email protected].


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