Sabbatum Sanctum (Holy Saturday)

Holy Saturday (Latin: Sabbatum Sanctum), the Saturday of Holy Week, is also known as Great Sabbath, Black Saturday, Easter Eve, “Joyous Saturday” or “the Saturday of Light” among Coptic Christians. It is the day after Good Friday and the day before Easter and the last day of Holy Week in which Christians prepare for Easter. It commemorates the day that Jesus Christ’s body lay in the tomb and the Harrowing of Hell. Holy Saturday is sometimes referred to as Easter Saturday. Some authorities consider that usage incorrect, holding that the term is only correctly applied to the Saturday in Easter Week. However, using the term “Easter Saturday” to refer to the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is used in legislation in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland,and is in common use in Australia, including by government agencies. On this day, the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows is assigned the title Our Lady of Solitude, referring to her solace and grief at the death of her son Jesus.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the chancel remains stripped completely bare (following the Mass on Maundy Thursday) while the administration of the sacraments is severely limited. Holy Communion, except for the Good Friday service, is given only as Viaticum to the dying. Baptism, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick may be administered because they, like Viaticum, are helpful to ensuring salvation for the dying. All Masses are severely limited. No Mass at all appears in the normal liturgy for this day, although Mass can be said on Good Friday and on Holy Saturday for an extremely grave or solemn situation with a dispensation from the Vatican or the local bishop. Many of the churches of the Anglican Communion as well as Lutheran, Methodist, and some other Churches observe most of the same; however, their altars may be covered in black instead of being stripped.

In some Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, provision is made for a simple Liturgy of the Word on this day, with readings commemorating the burial of Christ. Daily Offices are still observed. In the Moravian churches in North America, the day is known as Great Sabbath. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer uses Easter Eve to designate the day. Liturgically speaking, Holy Saturday lasts until 6pm or dusk, after which the Easter Vigil is celebrated, marking the official start of the Easter season. The rubrics state that the Easter Vigil must take place in the night; it must begin after nightfall and end before dawn. The service may start with a fire and the lighting of the new Paschal candle. In Roman Catholic and some Anglican observance, the Mass is the first Mass since that of Maundy Thursday, and during it, the “Gloria” — which has been absent during Lent — is used as the statues and icons, covered with purple veils during Passiontide, are dramatically unveiled. Some Anglican churches prefer to celebrate Easter and the lighting of the new Paschal candle at dawn on Easter Day. Baptisms may take place in this service and Baptism vows are often renewed.

In Eastern Orthodoxy this day, is known as Holy and Great Saturday or The Great Sabbath since it is on this day that Christ “rested” physically in the tomb. But it is also believed that it was on this day he performed in spirit the Harrowing of Hades and raised up to Paradise those who had been held captive there. In the Coptic, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, this day is known as Joyous Saturday. Matins of Holy and Great Saturday takes the form of a funeral service for Christ. The entire service takes place around the Epitaphios, an icon in the form of a cloth embroidered with the image of Christ prepared for burial. The first part of the service consists of chanting Psalm 118, as usual at both Saturday matins and at funerals, but interspersed with hymns (enkomia or lamentations) between the verses. The predominant theme of the service is not so much one of mourning, but of watchful expectation.

On Saturday, a vesperal Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great is celebrated, called the First Resurrection Service (Greek: Ἡ Πρώτη Ἀνάστασις), named so because chronologically it was composed earlier than the Pascal Canon by St John Damascene, rather than because it occurs earlier. This is the longest Divine Liturgy of the entire year and the latest. After the Little Entrance there are 15 Old Testament readings which recall the history of salvation. In the Russian tradition, just before the Gospel reading (Matthew 28:1–20) the hangings, altar cloths and vestments are changed from dark to bright and the deacon performs a censing of the church. In the Greek tradition, the clergy strew laurel leaves and flower petals all over the church to symbolize the shattered gates and broken chains of hell and Jesus’ victory over death. While the liturgical atmosphere changes from sorrow to joy at this service, the faithful continue to fast and the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen!”, is not exchanged until after midnight during the Paschal Vigil since this service represents the proclamation of Jesus’ victory over death to those in Hades, but the Resurrection has not yet been announced to those on earth which takes place during the Paschal Vigil.

Great Lent was originally the period of catechesis for new converts in order to prepare them for baptism and chrismation and when there are converts received, that occurs during the Old testament readings during the vesperal divine liturgy. Before the midnight service, the faithful gather in church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles in its entirety. Preceding midnight the Paschal Vigil begins with the Midnight Office, during which the Canon of Holy Saturday is repeated, toward the end of which the epitaphios is removed from the center of the church and placed on the altar table where it remains until the Ascension. Then, all of the candles and lights in the church are extinguished, and all wait in darkness and silence for the proclamation of the Resurrection of Christ.

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