The Great Sabbath

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

The traditions surrounding this day vary greatly depending upon whether it is celebrated in the Eastern rite or the Western rite. As is usually the case, the Eastern rite is even more elaborate than the Western. Given the elaborate nature of the liturgy of Holy Saturday, that might be hard to believe.

Holy Saturday (or the Great Sabbath) is the day on which Christians remember Christ lying in a tomb. Generally speaking, it is a day spare of sacraments; for it is a day when we remember that just as God rested on the seventh day after working at creation for six, Christ rested after the great work of his passion and death. So while it is a day of intense prayer, it is also a day on which we generally eschew the sacraments. No Masses are celebrated on Holy Saturday unless there is a grave reason and only then if the Vatican has given a specific dispensation.

One of the traditions about this day is called "The Harrowing of Hades." In our creed we state that we believed that Jesus descended into hell and released the souls held captive there and opened for them the gates of paradise. For this reason, the day is considered a day of joy. However, because the resurrection will not be proclaimed until after the sun sets, it is still considered a day for penance and fasting. Easter greetings in both the Roman and Eastern rites are reserved for after the vigil liturgy. If the statues of the saints have been covered during the two weeks of Passiontide, they are uncovered during the singing of the "Gloria" during the vigil liturgy in dramatic fashion.

The focus of the vigil liturgy in the Western rite is the Sacrament of Baptism. Those who have been preparing for full communion with the Catholic Church are also confirmed and admitted to the Eucharist. Baptism is the sacrament in which we die to sin and are raised to new life, in which we participate in Christ's victory over sin and death. It is fitting, therefore, that we celebrate this sacrament as we proclaim the resurrection.

Another important part of the vigil liturgy is the proclamation itself. Filled with references to "this night," it recalls the major events of salvation history. The proclamation likens our journey through the waters of Baptism and freedom from original sin to the journey of the Israelites through the Red Sea after the shackles of Egyptian slavery were shattered at the Passover. It refers to the sin of Adam as a happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam, which won for us so great a Redeemer.

As we keep this solemn Sabbath, we do so mindful of the fact that these mysteries have unfolded to reveal just how greatly God loves us. It is a day which is best spent poring over the Word of God in which God revealed the true nature of Love Incarnate.

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