The Sacred Triduum: The New Fire and Prophecies of Holy Saturday

The Tenebrae of Holy Saturday is a service of sorrow, similar to the Lamentations Service of the Orthodox I briefly examined in the previous blog post. The antiphons of both Matins and Lauds refer to death, burial, and mourning. The Canticle at Lauds is the Song of Hezekiah, normally sung on Tuesdays, the opening verse of which contains the phrase “I must go into the gates of the grave…” The word which the KJV translate as “the grave” is the Hebrew sheol, which the Septuagint translates into hades, which the Vulgate translates inferi. The Challoner Douay-Rheims in turn translates it as “hell”. Whatever the rendering, it refers to the realm of the dead.

However, there are also prayers of great hope weaved throughout, such as the opening antiphon of the Second Nocturne: “Be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.” The first antiphon of Lauds proclaims: “O death, I will be thy plague; O grave, I will be thy destruction.” Some of the antiphons that refer to death also distinctly characterize it as Christ’s rest, accentuating the nature of Holy Saturday as the day of the Sabbath. This final Tenebrae of the Sacred Triduum on the Holy Sabbath is sung in front of the unveiled cross on the altar, the church entire bare.

After None is said, the church is prepared for the great Easter Vigil, the longest service usually celebrated in a church. The service consists of five parts: the New Fire, the Prophecies, the Blessing of the Baptismal Font, the Litany, and the Vesperal Mass.


The New Fire

The High Altar is first vested in the finest white frontal the church has, which is then covered with a purple frontal. The empty tabernacle is left open. Near the altar on the Gospel side the Paschal Candle is stood on a large column. In the middle of the Paschal Candle should be five small holes, arranged in the shape of a cross. The lectern is covered with a fine white cloth. On the credence table and in the sacristy all the necessary things for the celebration of a festal High Mass should be prepared except for the deacon’s white stole and dalmatic. A plate with five grains of incense must also be specially prepared, along with a reed that holds three candles.

The Baptismal Font is to be cleaned and filled with clean water, and near the font should be a table covered with white cloth, upon which are placed two oil stocks containing Chrism and the oil of the catechumens. If there is to be a baptism during the service all the necessary items for it should also be prepared.

Before the service begins the sacred ministers vest in purple. The priest vests with stole and cope, the deacon and subdeacon in folded chasubles, and the deacon also with his stole. They do not, however, wear maniples. The church is not to be lighted, left in darkness. Once the ministers are vested, the altar party processes from the sacristy to the place the fire has been lit. Three servers walk in front: the acolyte in the middle carrying the aspergillum and aspersorium (the sprinkler and holy water stoup), the thurifer on the right carrying an empty thurible and incense boat, and an acolyte on the left holding the plate with five grains of incense. Behind these three come the subdeacon holding the cross, and behind him the choir, and finally the celebrant priest with the deacon on his left and the master of ceremonies on his right. Everyone stands around the fire, with the subdeacon between the fire and the door, holding the cross facing the fire. The priest stands on the opposite end of the fire.

new fire

The first acolyte puts down the aspersorium and opens the Missal for the priest. After intoning “Dominus vobiscum” (“The Lord be with you”), the faithful responding with the usual “Et cum spiritu tuo” (“And with thy spirit”), the priest sings the three collects for the blessing of the fire, the faithful responding Amen to each collect. The priest makes the sign of the cross over the fire as marked in the Missal during the collects, the deacon holding back the end of the cope while in front of the fire, for the practical reason that a clumsy priest does not accidentally burn the fringes of the cope. The acolyte with the plate of incense then comes before the priest, who then blesses the five grains of incense with the appointed prayer in the Missal. While the incense is being blessed the thurifer takes some charcoal from the fire and puts it into the thurible. After the incense is blessed the first acolyte closes the Missal and retrieves the apsersorium, and the priest imposes incense from the boat into the thurible. The priest then takes the aspergillum and first sprinkles holy water on the fire, and then the five grains of incense, saying the Asperges me (Thou shalt purge me with hyssop…) without the full psalm. He then takes the thurible and first censes the fire, and then the five grains of incense, each with three double swings in silence.

The deacon is then assisted in taking off his purple vestments, and is donned with a white maniple, stole, and dalmatic. The first acolyte lights a taper with the fire and the deacon, now vested in white, carries the reed with the three candles. A procession is formed, and all enter the church.


The Paschal Candle and the Exsultet

When the priest enters the church the procession halts. The acolyte lights one of the three candles in the reed held by the deacon. The deacon lifts up the reed, genuflects, and sings “Lumen Christi” (“The Light of Christ”) on a low note. Everyone, except the subdeacon holding the cross, genuflects with the deacon. The choir responds on the same note with “Deo gratias” (“Thanks be to God”). All rise and the procession continues to the middle of the church, and the ceremony is repeated with the second candle being lit and the responses sung at a slightly higher pitch. The procession then repeats the ceremony for the third and final time on an even higher pitch with the altar party before the altar. The priest then ascends the altar and kisses it, and the deacon hands the reed to an acolyte.

The book containing the Exsultet is brought to the deacon who then, carrying the book, approaches the priest and kneels on the foot of the altar. The deacon asks and the priest gives a blessing in the same way as for the Gospel at Mass, except that the priest says “suum paschale praeconium” (“his Paschal praise”) instead of “evangelium suum” (“his Gospel”). The deacon then descends the altar and stands between the subdeacon, holding the cross, and the first acolyte holding the reed. All genuflect except for the subdeacon and acolyte, and the altar party go to the lectern, positioned next to the Paschal Candle. The priest goes to the Epistle side of the altar. The deacon places the book upon the lectern, opens it, and censes it as at the Gospel at Mass. The deacon joins his hands and begins to sing the Exsultet, the great Easter hymn of the Sacred Triduum.

This video depicts a small church with only a priest, who is himself singing the Exsultet, but he sings so passionately that I wanted to just link to it. 

The Exsultet begins with a triumphal proclamation: “Exsultet jam angelica turba coelorum: exultent divina myseria; et pro tanti regis victoria, tuba insonet salutaris” (“Exult, let all the heavenly hosts of angels celebrate the divine mysteries with exultation; and let the trumpet of salvation proclaim triumph of our victorious king”)The hymn then unfolds a doxological fugue that weaves the themes of the eternal Trinity, the Fall of Adam and Eve, the Passion of the Lamb of God as the final Passover, the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Davidic prophecies of the Psalms, into one grand eschatological narrative.

After the deacon sings the line “Fugat odia, concordiam parat et curvat imperia” (“The holy mystery of this night dispels wickedness, washeth away sin: restoreth innocence to the fallen and joy to the mournful; [It] casteth out enmity, fostereth concord, and bringeth down principalities”), he stops singing and goes to the Paschal Candle with the acolyte holding the plate of incense. The deacon then takes the five grains of incense and fixes them into the five holes in the candle in the form of a cross. These represent the five wounds of Christ. The deacon then returns to the lectern and continues to chant the hymn. The acolyte puts down the plate on the credence table and returns to the lectern with a taper.

When the deacon sings the line “quam in honorem Dei rutilans ignis accendit” (“which in honour of God the glowing fire doth kindle”), he stops again. He takes the reed with the three candles from the first acolyte, and lights the Paschal Candle with one of the wicks. He then returns to the lectern and continues singing until he finishes the line “apis mater eduxit“. When the deacon pauses an acolyte lights the taper with the fire on the reed, and lights the candles of the High Altar. He then goes on to light all the lamps in the church. When the lamp(s) before the High Altar are lit, the deacon continues to sing until he completes the hymn. When the deacon concludes the Exsultet saying “Through the same Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end”, all respond Amen

exsultet scroll

In ancient times the Exsultet was sometimes read off an exquisite scroll that not only had the text written in it with the chant notations, but was also richly decorated with typological images. This scroll would have been progressively unraveled as the deacon sang the Exsultet, falling over the ambo for the faithful to see the illuminations. Accordingly, the text and notations were written in one direction, with the illuminations illustrated in reverse so that the images would be oriented correctly for the view of the faithful.

For reasons mysterious, the great Exsultet was chopped up in the provision of the American 1979 BCP, which was, again, repeated uncritically in both the Canadian BAS and ACNA 2019 (see a pattern?). The revised English translation of the Exsultet that was promulgated by the Roman Catholics in 2012/13 is, in my opinion, far superior to the eviscerated mess we find in the Anglican texts from 1979 to 2019. I honestly find the comparison embarrassing.


The Prophecies

After the Exsultet is concluded, the choir and all the faithful sit. The sacred ministers go to the sedilia where the priest takes off his cope and the deacon takes off his white vestments. They all don their purple vestments (chasubles, stoles, maniples). Thus changed, the sacred ministers go to the Epistle side of the altar. The priest will read the Prophecies from the Missal in a low voice as they are sung by the lectors. The lectern for the Prophecies is set, often in the middle of the choir.

The Prophecies begin once the sacred ministers return to the altar. When each lector approaches the lectern from where the Prophecies will be read, they first genuflect to the altar and bow to the choir on both sides. After the Prophecy is chanted all stand. The priest bows towards the altar cross and sings “Oremus” (“Let us pray”). The deacon follows by singing “Flectamus genua” (“Let us bow the knee”), and everyone genuflects except for the priest. After a moment, the subdeacon sings “Levate” (“Arise”) and all rise and stand while the priest sings the collect. Each of the Prophecies are sung in this way, with the choir singing a tract after the fourth, eighth, and eleventh Prophecies.

The Prophecies all consist of Old Testament texts:

1. Genesis 1:1–2:2. The Creation Narrative
2. Genesis 5:31–8:21. Noah’s Ark
3. Genesis 22:1-19. The Binding of Isaac
4. Exodus 14:24–15:1. The Parting of the Red Sea. The tract that follows is Chapter 15:1-3.
5. Isaiah 54:17–55:11. A Messianic Prophecy. The collect speaks of adoption into the people of God, so Isaiah 55:1 here is interpreted as a call to baptism. 
6. Baruch 3:9-38. A Call to Repentance and Glorification of God.
7. Ezekiel 37:1-14 . The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones and the Resurrection
8. Isaiah 4:1-6. The Glory of Zion. The tract that follows is Chapter 5:1-2 and 7.
9. Exodus 12:1-12. The Law of Passover and the Paschal Lamb
10. Jonah 3:1-10. The Repentance of Nineveh and the Mercy of God
11. Deuteronomy 31:22-30. Moses’ Exhortation to Observe the Law. The tract that follows is Chapter 32:1-4.
12. Daniel 3:1-24 : The Three Children and the Furnace.

Near the end of the final Prophecy, the acolytes light their candles, with one of them taking the Paschal Candle from the column, and another fetching the processional cross. At the end of the final Prophecy the genuflecting ceremony is not done, with all standing for the collect. The lectern is removed from the middle of the choir.

In the Sarum Use, along with some other local usages of the time like the Parisian and some Northern European churches, the Prophecies were reduced. The Sarum Use says the first, fourth, eighth, and eleventh Prophecies with their corresponding tracts. While it isn’t hard to understand why these local uses reduced the number of Prophecies sung, it is nevertheless unfortunate given that the omitted Prophecies are some of the most important messianic typological passages that have been referred to since the beginnings of the Christian Church. Indeed, they are of such venerable antiquity that they are embedded into the very texts of the New Testament itself. Because of how central the Binding of Isaac was for my own personal conversion, the omission of the third Prophecy is particularly grievous for me. The omission of the Ezekiel Prophecy and the Exodus Law of Passover is pretty serious as well, in my opinion. Honestly, they’re all rather important and we really shouldn’t omit any of them.

The importance of the Prophecies is stressed by Fortescue who, in a classically Roman fashion, stipulates that it is forbidden to leave out the Prophecies, and that they all must be sung in their entirety.


The next entry will examine the final parts of the Easter Vigil, starting from the Blessing of the Font.


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