Holy Saturday: The History and Traditions of the Final Day of Lent

Before his Resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ grants salvation to souls by the Harrowing of Hell. Fresco, by Fra Angelico, c. 1430s

According to the Bible, Jesus’s followers and family held a vigil for him outside his tomb, awaiting his foretold resurrection. Biblical references to the vigil are fairly terse, but accounts of the burial are Matthew 27:45–57; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:44–56; John 19:38–42. 

“So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.” Mark 15:46–47.

There are no direct references to what Jesus did while the apostles and his family sat vigil, except his last words to Dismas, the good thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:33–43). The Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed, however, refer to this day as “The Harrowing of Hell,” when after his death, Christ descended into hell to free all the souls who had died since the beginning of the world and allow the trapped righteous souls to reach heaven.

“Then the Lord stretching forth his hand, made the sign of the cross upon Adam, and upon all his saints. And taking hold of Adam by his right hand, he ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him.” Gospel of Nicodemus 19:11–12

The stories originate in the apocryphal text “Gospel of Nicodemus” (also known as the “Acts of Pilate” or “Gospel of Pilate”), and are referred to in passing in several places in the canonical Bible, the most significant of which is 1 Peter 3:19-20, when Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”

In the second century AD, people kept an absolute fast for the entire 40-hour period between nightfall on Good Friday (recollecting the time Christ was removed from the cross and buried in the tomb) and dawn on Easter Sunday (when Christ was resurrected).

By Constantine’s realm in the fourth century AD, the night of the vigil of Easter began Saturday at dusk, with the lighting of the “new fire,” including a large number of lamps and candles and the paschal candle. The paschal candle is very large, made of beeswax and fixed in a great candlestick created for that purpose; it is a significant part of the Easter Vigil that commences at the end of the day on Holy Saturday.

Easter Vigil Mass  

In the early church, Christians gathered on the afternoon of Holy Saturday to pray and to confer the Sacrament of Baptism catechumens—converts to Christianity who had spent Lent preparing to be received into the Church. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, in the early Church, “Holy Saturday and the vigil of Pentecost were the only days on which baptism was administered.” This vigil lasted through the night until dawn on Easter Sunday, when the Alleluia was sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent, and the faithful—including the newly baptized—broke their 40-hour fast by receiving Communion.

In the Middle Ages, beginning roughly in the eighth century, the ceremonies of the Easter Vigil, especially the blessing of new fire and the lighting of the Easter candle, began to be performed earlier and earlier. Eventually, these ceremonies were performed on Holy Saturday morning. The whole of Holy Saturday, originally a day of mourning for the crucified Christ and of expectation of His Resurrection, now became little more than an anticipation of the Easter Vigil.

Our Blessed Mother Mary on Holy Saturday

Our Lady and St. Peter on Holy Saturday

The Saviour of the World died a cruel death upon the Cross. His broken body was laid in the tomb. His disciples scattered and were fearful that they would be next. But our Blessed Mother kept vigil in the perfect hope that her Son would soon rise.

Traditionally, Saturdays within the Church year are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This ancient tradition developed in part due to the belief that, as others were filled with fear and confusion, Mother Mary kept vigil on Holy Saturday in prayerful anticipation of Jesus’ resurrection. She knew her Son would rise. She had hope beyond hope. Her faith was certain. Her love kept her vigilant as she awaited the return of her Son.

For many centuries, it has been suggested that the first person to whom Jesus appeared after His Resurrection was His own mother. Pope Saint John Paul II believed this. Saint Ignatius of Loyola believed it. And many others throughout the centuries shared this belief.

For these reasons, Holy Saturday is an ideal day to ponder the pondering heart of our Blessed Mother. There are several times in Sacred Scripture where we are told that Mother Mary pondered the mysteries of her Son’s life in her heart. She was one of the few who stood by Him in His agony and death. She stood before the Cross and prayerfully pondered His perfect sacrifice. The Blessed Mother held His dead body in her arms and pondered where His spirit had gone. And today she keeps vigil, pondering His imminent return to her.

Ponder her pondering heart. Try to unite your own heart with hers. Try to understand what she was thinking and hoping. Try to feel what she felt this sorrowful day. Try to experience her faith, her trust and her joyful expectation.

So many people in this world walk in despair and confusion. So many have lost hope in the new life that awaits them. So many have their own form of interior death without allowing God to draw them into His Resurrection. So many people today need the hope that was so alive in the heart of our Blessed Mother that first Holy Saturday.

Ponder the reality of Holy Saturday in silence this day and allow the glorious heart of our Blessed Mother to inspire you and draw you more deeply into her life of faith, hope and love.

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