Saturday was the only day of the week when Our Blessed Lady was without her beloved Son. This is why on Saturday, when no other feast is being celebrated, an Optional Memorial Mass of Our Lady on Saturday can be celebrated.
Holy Saturday – note, not “Easter Saturday” -shares much in character with Good Friday. Apart from frenzied preparations for the Vigil the church is cold and bare, continuing the ancient tradition no sacraments are celebrated, if possible the Paschal fast is continued until the Vigil itself and again Holy Communion may only given as viaticum to those approaching death. Apart from the Easter Vigil, Mass is never celebrated on Holy Saturday. The Lord lies in the tomb. The Church waits for the dawn of the third day.
There is only one liturgical action on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil – but, properly celebrated, it is the most beautiful, inspiring and moving ceremony in the Church’s year – as befits the Vigil of vigils celebrated “ ... on this most holy night, when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life, the Church invites her children throughout the world to come together in vigil and prayer.” (Opening prayer of the Vigil). The Easter Vigil must always begin after dark on Holy Saturday and must end by dawn on Easter Sunday morning.
The Vigil begins with the church in complete darkness and all who can assembled outside around the Easter Fire. This is blessed and the Paschal Candle that has been carried from the church is prepared (see the page on the Paschal Candle for a full description) and lit from the fire – Christ is risen! It is then carried into the darkened church stopping three times, as the cross did on Good Friday. At each stopping place the priest or deacon carrying the candle proclaims that Christ is our light “Lumen Christi”, to which all respond, “Thanks be to God” – “Deo Gratias”. After the second stopping people begin to light the candles that they have been holding from the Paschal Candle, passing the flame from person to person so that it becomes one light, divided but undimmed.
When the Paschal Candle reaches the sanctuary it is placed in its stand and is honoured with incense. The Easter Proclamation or Exsultet is then said or sung. This is a long hymn that reminds those present of the importance of what we celebrate on that night – the Vigil of vigils when we literally share in the bodily resurrection of Jesus:
“This is our Passover feast, when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain, whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.
This is the night when you first saved our fathers: you freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!
This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.
What good would life have been to us had Christ not come as our Redeemer?”
The second part of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of the Word – a sequence of seven readings from the Old Testament with psalms and prayers. The sequence of readings concludes with a reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans and the appropriate Gospel for the year. The readings used are as follows:
· Genesis 1: 1-2: 2
· Genesis 22: 1-18
· Exodus 14: 15-15: 1
· Isaiah 54: 5-14
· Isaiah 55: 1-11
· Baruch 3: 9-15, 32-4: 4
· Ezekiel 36: 16-17a, 18-28
· Romans 6: 3-11
· Matthew 28: 1-10, or Mark 16: 1-7, or Luke 24: 1-12
The purpose of the readings is, as the prayer that comes before them urges us: “Let us now listen attentively to the word of God, recalling how he saved his people throughout history and, in the fullness of time, sent his own Son to be our Redeemer.” After the final reading from the Old Testament, from the prophet Ezekiel, the Gloria is sung and the bells in the church are rung. The reading from the Gospel is followed by the homily.
The third part of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of Baptism and the focus of action switches from the ambo to the font which has been refilled. The Paschal Candle is taken from its stand and brought to the font. The Litany of the Saints is said or sung. The priest says the prayer of blessing part of which reflects on the ways in which water has featured in the history of humanity’s salvation:
“In baptism we use your gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament.
At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness.
Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism.
In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptised by John and anointed with the Spirit.
Your Son wiled that water and blood should flow from his side as he hung upon the cross.
After his resurrection he told his disciples: “Go out and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.””
The end of the Paschal Candle is then dipped into the water three times while the priest asks for God’s blessing: “We ask you, Father, with your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the waters of this font. May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.”
This is followed by the renewal of baptismal promises during which all present are invited to reject sin and to profess their faith. Following this, as a reminder of their own baptism, people are invited to come to the font, to the newly blessed water, and to bless themselves with it by making the sign of the cross.
The fourth and final part of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of the Eucharist which, apart from special prayers for the night, is identical to the Liturgy of the Eucharist at a Sunday Mass. At the end of the Easter Vigil the people are dismissed with a double “Alleluia” – the Easter Vigil is the first time that the word will have been used in any of the Church’s liturgies since before the start of Lent.