Friday, April 2, 2021

Interesting History of Holy Saturday and Current Elements of the Holiest Day in the Church Year



The rubrics of the Missale Romanum remind us that Holy Saturday is the "mother of all vigils" is the "greatest and most noble of all solemnities and it is to be unique in every single Church" ( Missale Romanum, "Rubrics for the Easter Vigil" (EV), no.2). On this holy night, the Church keeps watch, celebrating the resurrection of Christ in the sacraments and awaiting his return in glory. It is the turning point of the Triduum, the Passover of the new covenant, which marks Christ's passage from death to life. Therefore, the Easter Vigil does not correspond to the usual Saturday evening Mass and its character is unique in the cycle of the liturgical year.

History:   

 In the primitive Church Holy Saturday was known as Great, or Grand, Saturday, Holy Saturday, the Angelic Night, the Vigil of Easter, etc. It is no longer, like Maundy Thursday, a day of joy, but one of joy and sadness intermingled; it is the close of the season of Lent and penance, and the beginning of paschal time, which is one of rejoicing. We remember how Jesus was laid in the tomb and ressurected on the 3rd day.

By a noteworthy exception, in the early Church this was the only Saturday on which fasting was permitted (Constit. Apost., VII, 23), and the fast was one of special severity. Dating from the time of St. Irenaeus, an absolute fast from every kind of food was observed for the forty hours preceding the feast of Easter, and although the moment assigned for breaking the fast at dawn on Sunday varied according to time and country, the abstinence from food on Holy Saturday was general.

The night of the vigil of Easter has undergone a strange displacement. During the first six or seven centuries, ceremonies were in progress throughout the entire night, so that the Alleluia coincided with the day and moment of the Resurrection. In the eighth century these same ceremonies were held on Saturday afternoon and, by a singular anachronism, were later on conducted on Saturday morning, thus the time for carrying out the solemnity was advanced almost a whole day. Thanks to this change, special services were now assigned to Holy Saturday whereas, beforehand, it had had none until the late hour of the vigil.

This vigil opened with the blessing of the new fire, the lighting of lamps and candles and of the paschal candle, ceremonies that have lost much of their symbolism by being anticipated and advanced from twilight to broad daylight. St. Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of this night that was as bright as day, and Constantine the Great added unprecedented splendour to its brilliancy by a profusion of lamps and enormous torches, so that not only basilicas, but private houses, streets, and public squares were resplendent with the light that was symbolic of the Risen Christ. The assembled faithful gave themselves up to common prayer, the singing of psalms and hymns, and the reading of the Scriptures commentated by the bishop or priests. The vigil of Easter was especially devoted to the baptism of catechumens who, in the more important churches, were very numerous. On the Holy Saturday following the deposition of St. John Chrysostom from the See of Constantinople, there were 3000 catechumens in this church alone. Such numbers were, of course, only encountered in large cities; nevertheless, as Holy Saturday and the vigil of Pentecost were the only days on which baptism was administered, even in smaller churches there was always a goodly number of catechumens. This meeting of people in the darkness of the night often occasioned abuses which the clergy felt powerless to prevent by active supervision unless by so anticipating the ceremonies that all of them could take place in daylight. Rabanus Maurus, an ecclesiastical writer of the ninth century (De cleric. Instit., II, 28), gives a detailed account of the ceremony of Holy Saturday. The congregation remained silent in the church awaiting the dawn of the Resurrection, joining at intervals in psalmody and chant and listening to the reading of the lessons. These rites were identical with those in the primitive Church and were solemnized at the same hours, as the faithful throughout the world had not yet consented to anticipate the Easter vigil and it was only during the Middle Ages that uniformity on this point was established.

Current Elements of Holy Saturday

The Service of Light

In a suitable place outside the Church, a "blazing fire" ( rogus ardens) is to be prepared so that the people may gather around it and experience the flames dispelling the darkness and lighting up the night. Thus do the beauty of the fire, its warmth and its light, draw the liturgical assembly together. The rubrics, however, acknowledge that when this cannot be done adaptations may be made. The Missale also states that cross and candles are not to be carried in this procession (EV, no. 8).

Having reached the fire, the celebrant and faithful sign themselves with the sign of the cross while the priest says: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (EV, no. 9). After this new beginning, he greets the people and then gives the instruction (EV, no. 9). As the celebrant blesses the fire he says the prayer with hands outstretched (EV, no. 10).

The Paschal Candle is brought forward. This candle should be made of wax, never be artificial, be renewed each year, be only one in number, and be of sufficiently large size that it may convey the truth that Christ is the light of the world. This description is developed in no. 94 of Built of Living Stones which reminds us that the Paschal Candle is the symbol of the "light of Christ, rising in glory," scattering the "darkness of our hearts and minds." "Above all, the Paschal Candle should be a genuine candle, the pre-eminent symbol of the light of Christ. Choice of size, design, and color should be made in relationship to the sanctuary in which it will be placed . . . " (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts [1988], no 82).

The candle is then prepared in rites which are no longer optional. The celebrant cuts a cross into the candle with a stylus. Then he makes the Greek letter Alpha above the cross, the letter Omega below it, and the four numerals of the current year between the arms of the cross, saying the words indicated. After these rites, the priest lights the candle from the new fire and says: May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds. (EV, no.14)

The organization of the procession is more clearly described in the new Missale Romanum. One of the ministers takes burning coals from the fire and places them in a censer (thurible) and the priest, in the usual way, places incense into it. The deacon, or in his absence another appropriate minister accepts the Easter candle from the celebrant and a procession is formed. The order of procession is the thurifer with smoking thurible, preceding the minister holding the candle, followed by the ministers and the priest and the people. All hold unlit candles (EV, no.15). Just as the children of Israel were guided at night by the pillar of fire, so Christians follow the risen Christ.

The places at which the proclamation, Light of Christ, are sung now differ from what was in the previous Missale.

The new places are: at the door of the Church (after which the priest lights his candle), in the middle of the Church (after which all light their candles), and before the altar, facing the people. The Missale instructs the deacon to place the candle in a large candle stand prepared either next to the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary (EV, no. 17). The lights of the Church are then lit with the exception of the altar candles which are lit just before the intonation of the Gloria (EV, nos. 17 and 31).

Before the Easter Proclamation, the priest gives his candle to one of the ministers and blesses incense as at the Gospel during Mass. Having asked for and received the blessing, the deacon announces the Easter proclamation from the ambo or at a lectern. This poetic text captures the whole Easter mystery placed within the context of the economy of salvation. In the absence of a deacon the priest himself or another concelebrating priest may announce the Easter proclamation. If, however, a lay cantor announces the proclamation, the words, My dearest friends, up to the end of the invitation are omitted, along with the greeting, The Lord be with you (nos. 18-19). The reference to the Conference of Bishops adapting the text by inserting acclamations is no longer mentioned.

Liturgy of the Word

One of the unique aspects of the Easter Vigil is the recounting of the outstanding deeds of the history of salvation. These deeds are related in seven readings from the Old Testament chosen from the law and the prophets and two readings from the New Testament, namely from the apostles and from the gospel. Thus, the Lord "beginning with Moses and all the prophets" ( Lk 24.27, 44-45) meets us once again on our journey and, opening up our minds and hearts, prepares us to share in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. The faithful are encouraged to meditate on these readings by the singing of a responsorial psalm, followed by a silent pause, and then by the celebrant�s prayer. The Missale adds a sentence about the nine readings proposed, saying that "all of these must be read whenever it can be done, so that the character of a Vigil which takes place over some duration of time can be observed" (EV, no. 20).
The new Missale recognizes that "nevertheless, where grave pastoral circumstances demand it, the number of readings from the Old Testament may be reduced" (EV, no 21). At least three readings from the Old Testament should be read always including Exodus 14 (EV, no. 21). The reference found previously in the Missale to the possibility of having only two Old Testament readings in extreme necessity is omitted.

The Missale is very specific about the priest singing the Alleluia before the Gospel: "After the Epistle has been read, all rise, and the priest solemnly intones the Alleluia three times, raising his voice a step each time. All repeat the Alleluia each time. If necessary, the psalmist intones the Alleluia. Mention is then made of the psalmist or cantor singing Psalm 117 and the people responding, 'Alleluia' (EV, no. 34). This psalm is often recited by the apostles in their Easter preaching" (Acts 4.11-12; Mt 21.42; Mk 12.10; Lk 20.17).

The Missale directs explicitly that the homily, even if it is brief, is not to be omitted (EV, no.36). This requires that the homilist carefully prepare and craft the homily so that it captures the tremendous mysteries being celebrated on this most holy of nights.

Liturgy of Baptism

The Missale has reorganized the rubrics for this entire section of the Vigil (nos. 37-58). Nevertheless, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults should always be consulted in conjunction with the rubrics mentioned here in the Missale. This is especially true when Baptisms are taking 
Christ's Passover and ours are given full expression when baptismal water is blessed in the font and when the Christian initiation of adults, or, at least the baptism of infants, takes place at the Easter Vigil. 
Even if there are no candidates for baptism, the blessing of baptismal water should take place in parish churches. At the very least, baptism should be commemorated by the blessing of water intended for sprinkling upon the people.
Liturgy of the Eucharist Care should be taken that, particularly in regard to this night's celebration of the Eucharist, the liturgy is not done in haste and that all the rites and words should be given their full force. 
 The Missale has incorporated into itself rubrics found in nos. 241-243 of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. These allow for a commemoration of the baptized and their godparents to be made in the Eucharistic Prayer. Proper formulas are found in the Roman Missal for each of the Eucharistic prayers (EV, no.63). 
Source: USCCB and The Catholic Encyclopedia

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