The Sacred Triduum: Holy Saturday and the Problem of Time

My apologies for the very belated update. When I began work on the last entries of the Triduum after the Easter Octave my laptop charger broke. I return to finish the final three entries now that my new charger has arrived.


When is the Easter Vigil to be celebrated?

Most of us, having grown up sometime after the mid-20th century, will simply take as an obvious fact that the Easter Vigil is a nocturnal service. But from the medieval era the Easter Vigil was often celebrated in the morning or afternoon of Holy Saturday, and from the 16th century to the mid-20th century the Easter Vigil seems to have been uniformly celebrated in the morning by the Roman Catholics due to the regulations of the Tridentine Missal, which mandated that all Masses, unless otherwise specified, be celebrated before noon.

But the 9th century Pontifical of Poiters speaks of the Easter Vigil taking place at midnight, and in the 11th century the reformer monk, St. John Gualbert, sought to return the observation of the Vigil to the night. Thus the 12th century liturgical texts of the Vallombrosians (the order founded by St. Gualbert) stress that the blessing of the New Fire, which begins the Easter Vigil, should not occur until dusk. The disciples of St. Gualbert, trained under his strict asceticism and moral vision, thought the anticipated celebration of the Easter Vigil in the daytime to be a sign of gluttony. Given that the Lenten fast ends with the conclusion of the Easter Vigil, the Vallombrosians might have a point here.

In the 1955 revisions of Holy Week, the Vatican editors mandated that the Easter Vigil take place after sunset, and this has become the near-universal practice in contemporary Western Christianity. Now, I recount all of this partly because of how I was puzzled when I first learned that much of the pre-1955 Vigils were celebrated on Saturday morning, and also because the question of when to celebrate the Easter Vigil is perhaps the only place where I see significant disagreements among the young traditionalists who desire a full-fledged return to the celebration of the ancient Sacred Triduum rites. This goes beyond just being an academic question, as with the slow return of the pre-1955 Holy Week among Roman communities we get to see divergent practices on the time the Vigil is performed.

This is something I still puzzle about, though at the time of writing I am a bit inclined to take the Vallombrosian position on this (no doubt highly influenced by the fact that I have only ever been to an Easter Vigil at night, doubly because of my great partiality towards monastic asceticism). For one, the hymn par excellence of the Easter Vigil, the Exsultet, references the time of service as “Haec nox est” (“This is the night”), and the symbolism of the dark church being illumined by the New Light clearly shows the origins of the Vigil as a nocturnal liturgy. Indeed, the ancient authorities of Church history also lay witness to this. Another thing that complicates all this for us theologically is that there has risen a somewhat popular narrative that there shouldn’t be a Mass on Holy Saturday because it is the day Christ remained dead. Nevertheless, the celebration of the Vesperal Mass on the morning of Holy Saturday is also mirrored by the Orthodox who often celebrate a Vesperal Divine Liturgy on the morning of Holy Saturday, so the displacement of the Easter Vigil to the morning can’t just be chalked up to a uniquely Western, Romish corruption. The Eucharist is also communicated on this Divine Liturgy as well. What to make of all this?

Now, of course we need to be careful when comparing the Eastern and Western traditions, because each liturgical tradition have their own distinctive characteristics and reasons. This is all the more crucial given the strange propensity for Western Christians today to exotify the Orthodox, engaging in sometimes bizarre theologico-liturgical orientalism (“The Society for Eastern Rite Anglicanism” being a particularly extreme example). Nevertheless, the Eastern witnesses are often helpful when one reaches an impasse, and both the general ignorance we have of the Easterners and the unfortunately common Latin chauvinism of Western traditionalists is something one must always condemn. So, before I examine the lengthy Roman rites of Holy Saturday, which will itself be split over two blog posts, lets first take a brief look at the Orthodox liturgies of Holy Saturday and see what it might show us.


Byzantine Holy Saturday

descent from the cross

The Orthros of Holy Saturday is also known as the Lamentation Service by the Orthodox, and its content reflects its role as a kind of liturgical funerary service for Christ. As an Hour Orthros is parallel to Lauds, but in content it corresponds more closely to Matins. Orthros, like Matins, is the longest and most complex hour of the Byzatine Divine Office. For the Lamentations Service the clergy are vested in dark colours. The choir sings at the Apolytikion: “The pious Joseph, having brought down thy pure body from the tree, wrapped it in pure linen, embalmed it with ointment, arrayed it and laid it in a new tomb.” Immediately after is then sung an ode to Christ’s descent into hell and the destruction of hell. In the Kathismata shortly after is sung another reference to how Joseph received Christ’s body after the Crucifixion and dutifully embalmed it with fine linen, spices, and ointment. In the canon the choir sings that “I shall praise thy burial with funeral dirges…” In case all this hasn’t made clear to the faithful the funerary character of the service, the reader of the Synaxarion explicitly states that “On the Great Holy Saturday, we celebrate the burial of the divine body, and the descent of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to Hades...”

The first of the three Lamentation hymns, perhaps the most beautiful ecclesiastical compositions of this service, begins with the priest intoning: “In a grave they laid thee, O my Life and my Christ…” The Lamentations are sung in front of the Epitaphios, a richly embroidered cloth depicting the body of Christ after he has been taken off from the Cross, a special liturgical icon that is only used in the Byzantine Rite on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Shortly after a procession is made with the Epitaphios, sometimes with the Epitaphios mounted atop a bier.

holy saturday matins epitaphios

The Byzantine Rite distinctively retains the saying of alleluia through the course of Lent, in stark contrast to the Roman Rite that buries it since Septuagesima. Alleluia is said quite a few times even in this funerary service of Holy Saturday Orthros by the Orthodox. Even in the midst of talking about the death and funeral of Christ the Orthodox proclaim, again and again, the victory of Christ over death. It is a most remarkable thing to witness, as the Orthodox hold the two polarities together by accentuating them to their extremes instead of leveling them out to lukewarm gruel (as contemporary Western Christians do with, well, seemingly everything). So when we examine the Orthodox we must not be mislead by surface-level examples of joy or penitence. For what underlies the Eastern confidence in front of death is a profound recognition of the reality and sorrowfulness of death, and what underlies their sometimes seemingly harsh proclamations of our sinful unworthiness is an inexhaustible confession of Christ’s triumph over death. As we see in their Orthros of Holy Saturday, these two polarities echo back and forth for the entire service, and indeed they are echos because they speak of the one reality of the same Christ.


The Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday also begins with the clergy clothed in dark vestments (although I’ve seen some variations on this–for example, the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America prescribes bright vestments from the start). After the usual beginnings of Vespers until the daily Vespers hymn in the Byzantine Rite, the Phos hilarion, is then chanted the 15 Prophecies. The Epistle is then sung after the little baptismal hymn, and the clergy change into bright vestments before the Gospel, which is the Matthean account of the two Marys meeting the risen Christ for the first time (Matthew 28). While the clergy change their vestments all the dark furnishings of the church (altar coverings, etc.) are also changed to a bright colour. Instead of the usual cherubic hymn is sung the Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, which has become well known in the English-speaking world through its expansive adaptation by the great Anglican hymnist, Gerard Moultrie:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly-minded, for the King of kings and the Lord of lords cometh forth to be sacrificed and given as food to the faithful. Before him go the hosts of angels, with all principalities and powers, the many-eyed Cherubim and six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces and crying out the hymn: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

The Anaphora is that of the Liturgy of St. Basil, and it will not be said again for the rest of the year. The next time it will be heard by the Orthodox will be Christmas Eve. At the Koinonikon is sung: “And the Lord was awakened, as one out of sleep, and arose as one delivered unto us. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”


Preliminary notes on the theology of Holy Saturday

This Vesperal Divine Liturgy is helpful for us in considering the Easter Vigil because it is, unquestionably, the closest parallel to the Easter Vigil of the Sacred Triduum. The Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday contains the reading of 15 messianic Old Testament prophecies, which obviously corresponds to the 12 Old Testament prophecies that are read in the Western Easter Vigil. Both the Roman and the Byzantine rites also begin the service in dark (purple) colours which change mid-way into bright (white) colours, signaling the end of Lent and the beginning of Eastertide. The Eucharistic consecration takes place, and the faithful are communed in both the East and the West. And while it seems to remain liturgically normative for the Vesperal Divine Liturgy to take place in the evening of Holy Saturday, it is often anticipated in the morning because the night time Paschal Liturgy is longTo celebrate the Liturgy of Holy Saturday in the early evening, which itself is also quite lengthy, and then celebrate the lengthy Pascha Liturgy just a few hours later (which includes a procession, a unique Hour called the Midnight Office which is only celebrated on this occasion, a modified Orthros, and the return of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) would be rather taxing for the clergy and faithful.

What this shows us is that there is a clear distinction made between the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday and the Paschal Liturgy proper. The festal elements that are unveiled in Holy Saturday are nevertheless left incomplete (this also remains the case for the Vesperal Mass of the Easter Vigil). The full and complete celebration of the Resurrection only begins with the Paschal Liturgy on the night of Easter (the famous Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom is recited at the nocturnal Paschal Liturgy), and thus the anticipation of the Liturgy of Holy Saturday does not displace the Easter celebration from its proper nocturnal nature for the Orthodox. On the other hand, the Sacred Triduum does not appear to have a real parallel to the Byzantine Paschal Liturgy.

My guess is that the surprisingly brief form the Matins of Easter has in the Roman Rite, reflecting its antiquity, hearkens to when the Easter Vigil was still uniformly celebrated at night. While the full celebration of the Resurrection might have been kept on the morning of the Resurrection, Easter Matins and Lauds might have followed shortly after the nocturnal Vesperal Mass, thus making it something of a true “all-night vigil” of the holiest mystery of the Christian faith. Given the similarities of the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday with the Roman Easter Vigil, I want to suggest that the Byzantine nighttime Paschal Liturgy might be a late development. But all this is, admittedly, speculation on my part, and I would like to delve into more detailed historical study on this in the future. Nevertheless, the fact that the Sacred Triduum does not contain two separate great liturgies for Holy Saturday and Easter night like the Orthodox shouldn’t be taken as a necessary poverty of the Western Rite. Not only does this difference seem to reflect the venerable antiquity of the Sacred Triduum, among the most ancient extant Christian liturgies of the world, but before making such judgments we must first allow the rite we have inherited to reveal its own internal reason and dignity first.

On the distinctively theological front, one of the more common complaints made by those who dislike the anticipation of the Easter Vigil to the morning of Holy Saturday is that it displaces the very proper character of Holy Saturday. Each day of the Sacred Triduum is both a remembrance and liturgical “repetition” of the Lord’s Passion, and thus hold vital importance for the faithful in their participation in the eschatological drama of Salvation. Holy Saturday is the day that marks the death of Christ, the day Christ’s soul descended into Hell and his body laid in the tomb, indeed the day when the mortal flesh of Christ rested on the seventh day of the Holy Sabbath. By anticipating the Easter Vigil to the morning, which marks the end of Lent and the beginning of Eastertide, the one day of the year where we commemorate the burial of Christ and his descent into Hell is pretty much erased. The remembrance and participation in the whole drama of Salvation is rendered unbalanced.

In relation to this argument is also the opinion that there shouldn’t be a celebration of Mass during the day of Holy Saturday because the day of Christ’s descent into Hell is the one day his spirit was absent from the mortal life. It is argued that it would be improper to celebrate the Mass when the mortal remains of Christ laid in rest on the Holy Sabbath. I used to be quite sympathetic to this line of thought, and held the impression that Holy Saturday should be the one day Mass is not celebrated in the year. With this line of thought, the Easter Vigil is interpreted as the proper first Mass of Easter, kept as a nocturnal liturgy because the liturgical day begins at night. But more recently I’ve become a bit skeptical of this association, mainly because I realized that my conceptualization of the descent into Hell was perhaps too monochromatic. The death of Christ and the burial of his lifeless body in the tomb is a mournful memory, and a truly shocking and horrifying cosmic event. God died. The hopes of the followers of Christ, whatever they might have been, were utterly dashed. All the Apostles, with the sole exception of St. John, disappeared. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus alone prepare the body of Christ in observation of the Law (perhaps also with the women and St. John, who kept watch under the Cross), and the tomb is sealed by the Romans. It is a day of desolation.

harrowing of hell

However, my time with an Orthodox church in my motherland taught me that Holy Saturday, even before the Resurrection itself, is also a time of great cosmic triumph. In the Eastern iconographic tradition the Resurrection itself is not depicted. The icons that are often labeled and known as icons of the Resurrection actually depict the Harrowing of Hell, and I first encountered this icon painted on the walls of that Orthodox church I came to love deeply. Christ’s descent into Hell after his death, as shocking as the event is, was also the way by which Christ proclaimed the Good News to the dead. The Harrowing, unlike the Descent from the Cross, is not drawn in sorrow but with great glory. Christ comes to Hell not as a victim but as a conqueror. He is not broken but in gleaming white and gold, the gates of Hell broken asunder under his feet, laid in the shape of a cross. Broken chains and locks are strewn about in the dark abyss, and Christ is pulling up Adam and Eve by the wrists, depicting the salvation of our ancestors and human nature entire from enslavement.

The Orthodox iconographic tradition teaches us that even while Christ’s human flesh laid in rest in the tomb, Christ was also nevertheless at work on this Holy Sabbath, defeating death by death and bringing life to even the land of the dead. If Holy Saturday is just a remembrance of the lifeless body of Christ in the tomb, then certainly it would be inappropriate to celebrate the Eucharist on this day. But Holy Saturday is also the celebration of the Harrowing of Hell, of Christ breaching the gates of Hell and laying to ruin death’s pretensions to sovereignty over life. Even Hieronymous Bosch’s bizarre and striking painting, Christ in Limbo, depicts Christ crashing down the gates of Hell, overwhelming the forces of Hell that are attempting to hold the gate shut. With this triumphal aspect of Holy Saturday in mind, even though the cosmic drama of the Harrowing of Hell remains invisible to our mortal eyes the notion that the Mass should not be celebrated in the desolation of Holy Saturday falters. The Eucharistic celebration of the Vesperal Divine Liturgy and the Vesperal Mass of Holy Saturday isn’t centrally a celebration in spite of the reality of Christ’s death but rather the confident affirmation of Christ’ defeat of death by death. The liturgico-eschatological meaning of Holy Saturday understood in this expansive way, the opinion that the celebration of Mass should be banned during the day of the Holy Sabbath loses strength. The anticipation of the Easter Vigil to the morning might not be so theologically incoherent as we might think, after all.

However, all that being said, the liturgical content of the Easter Vigil clearly reflect its nocturnal character, and the historical witnesses support this. The antiquity of the Sacred Triduum, preserved far more sparsely and solemnly than Byzantine Holy Week due to the conservative simplicity of the old Roman Rite, did not lead to the development of a wholly distinct nocturnal Easter liturgy apart from the Vigil on Holy Saturday. Although churches that do anticipate the Easter Vigil in the morning tend to observe the Matins and Lauds of Easter in the evening, this still doesn’t change the fact that in the framework of the Sacred Triduum this development in the celebrations of Holy Saturday lead to the loss of an ancient character of the Easter Vigil. Even if the anticipation isn’t as theologically incoherent as detractors often claim, it still leaves, I argue, the Vigil liturgically misplaced, and I would like to place my chips with the austere Vallombrosians on this debate.

All of this, perhaps, might be an excessive expenditure of energy on a question that is relevant to a (currently) vanishingly small number of people, given that the vast majority of Western Christians simply take it for granted that the Easter Vigil is to be a nocturnal service. But the practice of anticipating the vigil, which was common until the mid-1950s, deserves serious consideration when respected liturgical authorities like Fortescue simply take for granted that the Vigil is celebrated in the morning. The opinions of our new traditionalists who have revived this practice deserve proper engagement without simply being dismissed as erroneous atavists, and our contemporary presuppositions about the Vigil also need to be critiqued seriously (as one should with everything, lest we degenerate into ignorance). In any case, this preface to the Easter Vigil has taken on a rather bloated length, and it would perhaps be prudent to conclude this entry here and move on to our examination of the rite of Holy Saturday.

The Vesperal Mass of Holy Saturday is, like the previous two days of the Sacred Triduum, long and complex, so I will examine the whole of it over two posts.


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