January 28, 2021

Footnotes on Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

“It is rare to hear a sermon about Easter Saturday; for much of Christian history the day has found no place in liturgy and worship it could call its own within the triduum, or three-day festival spanning Good Friday and the Day of Resurrection…”

– Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday
Alan E. Lewis

Here is the text of Alan Lewis’s footnote on that statement:

between-cross-and-resurrection-a-theology-of-holy-saturday-193x300There have, of course, always been special prayers and readings for “Holy Saturday” in church traditions with fixed liturgies and lectionaries. But torn — quite properly — between contrite memory and expectant hope, the church has often found it impossible to clarify any one particular theme or practice for worship and celebration on this day. Indeed, such is the ambiguity and anonymity of Easter Eve that it has sometimes lost its distinctive, if silent, place in the Christian calendar altogether, and been encroached upon liturgically by the other days of the Easter triduum, especially by Easter Day itself. Thus there persisted for centuries a Roman Catholic tradition of chronologically premature celebrations of the Easter Mass, held as early as the Saturday morning. This practice ceased in 1956. It is certainly better for the church to do nothing that is liturgically specific on the second day than to compromise the uniqueness of its position between cross and resurrection by absorbing it as simply an extension of Good Friday or an anticipation of Easter.

The tradition of Paschal Vigil on Easter Eve, which goes back to apostolic times, has been preserved in both East and West, and is now enjoying something of a revival even in some Protestant circles, is a quite different matter, of course, and wholly appropriate. It preserves the integrity of the narrative, and indeed draws attention to its structure, by not anticipating Easter but waiting patiently, through the long, last hours of Saturday night, until the joyous third-day dawn….

In the theological tradition, as we shall see below, on the Greek Father Gregory of Nyssa has perceived much dogmatic significance in Holy Saturday, while Martin Luther daringly expressed the thought that after Good Friday God’s very self lay dead in the grave. In contemporary times, the great Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has alone, but profoundly, explored the meaning of Holy Saturday….

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Here is some good perspective on Roman Catholic understanding and practice from a helpful article on CatholicCulture.org:

HolySaturday2Holy Saturday (from Sabbatum Sanctum, its official liturgical name) is sacred as the day of the Lord’s rest; it has been called the “Second Sabbath” after creation. The day is and should be the most calm and quiet day of the entire Church year, a day broken by no liturgical function. Christ lies in the grave, the Church sits near and mourns. After the great battle He is resting in peace, but upon Him we see the scars of intense suffering…The mortal wounds on His Body remain visible….Jesus’ enemies are still furious, attempting to obliterate the very memory of the Lord by lies and slander.

Mary and the disciples are grief-stricken, while the Church must mournfully admit that too many of her children return home from Calvary cold and hard of heart. When Mother Church reflects upon all of this, it seems as if the wounds of her dearly Beloved were again beginning to bleed.

 According to tradition, the entire body of the Church is represented in Mary: she is the “credentium collectio universa” (Congregation for Divine Worship, Lettera circolare sulla preparazione e celebrazione delle feste pasquali, 73). Thus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she waits near the Lord’s tomb, as she is represented in Christian tradition, is an icon of the Virgin Church keeping vigil at the tomb of her Spouse while awaiting the celebration of his resurrection.

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The mood of this day is somewhat different and more expectant, even joyous, in Eastern churches. Holy Saturday is called “The Great Sabbath” to commemorate Christ resting in the tomb, but it is also the day in which he, in spirit, performed “The Harrowing of Hell,” setting free those bound in Hades and lifting them up to Paradise. In some Eastern churches, the day is known as “Joyous Saturday.”

Here is an informative overview from the teaching site of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America:

Harrowing-of-hell-iconOn Great and Holy Saturday the Orthodox Church commemorates the burial of Christ and His descent into Hades. It is the day between the Crucifixion of our Lord and His glorious Resurrection. The Matins of Holy Saturday is conducted on Friday evening, and while many elements of the service represent mourning at the death and burial of Christ, the service itself is one of watchful expectation.

On Great and Holy Saturday the Church contemplates the mystery of the Lord’s descent into Hades, the place of the dead. Death, our ultimate enemy, is defeated from within. “He (Christ) gave Himself as a ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the Cross … He loosed the bonds of death” (Liturgy of St. Basil).

On Great Saturday our focus is on the Tomb of Christ. This is no ordinary grave. It is not a place of corruption, decay and defeat. It is life-giving, a source of power, victory and liberation.

Great Saturday is the day between Jesus’ death and His resurrection. It is the day of watchful expectation, in which mourning is being transformed into joy. The day embodies in the fullest possible sense the meaning of xarmolipi – joyful-sadness, which has dominated the celebrations of Great Week. The hymnographer of the Church has penetrated the profound mystery, and helps us to understand it through the following poetic dialogue that he has devised between Jesus and His Mother:

“Weep not for me, O Mother, beholding in the sepulcher the Son whom thou hast conceived without seed in thy womb. For I shall rise and shall be glorified, and as God I shall exalt in everlasting glory those who magnify thee with faith and love.”

“O Son without beginning, in ways surpassing nature was I blessed at Thy strange birth, for I was spared all travail. But now beholding Thee, my God, a lifeless corpse, I am pierced by the sword of bitter sorrow. But arise, that I may be magnified.”

“By mine own will the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble as they see me, clothed in the bloodstained garment of vengeance: for on the Cross as God have I struck down mine enemies, and I shall rise again and magnify thee.”

“Let the creation rejoice exceedingly, let all those born on earth be glad: for hell, the enemy, has been despoiled. Ye women, come to meet me with sweet spices: for I am delivering Adam and Eve with all their offspring, and on the third day I shall rise again.” (9th Ode of the Canon)

Great Saturday is the day of the pre-eminent rest. Christ observes a Sabbath rest in the tomb. His rest, however, is not inactivity but the fulfillment of the divine will and plan for the salvation of humankind and the cosmos. He who brought all things into being, makes all things new. The re-creation of the world has been accomplished once and for all. Through His incarnation, life and death Christ has filled all things with Himself He has opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the author of life would be dominated by corruption.


  1. Let’s Talk about Jesus has a nice message about Holy Sat. http://www.lovinggrace.org

  2. That Other Jean says

    Please, go read Fred Clark’s re-post of his Holy Saturday meditation from 2010 on Slacktivist. It’s worth reading every year.


    • Thank you so much for this. Wonderful meditation. This captures the essence of Holy Saturday well: “And now it’s Saturday and Jesus is dead and we’re all going to die and everything I’ve told you about him turns out to be in vain and everything I’ve staked my life on turns out to be in vain. Our faith is futile and we’re still hopeless in our sins. Jesus is dead and we are of all people most to be pitied.”

  3. For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
    who thee by faith before the world confessed,
    thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.

  4. Kerri in AK says

    At the community’s compline service last night, to a tune simply called Little Hill composed by John Harper, four of us sang SATB a very beautiful song written by British Cistercian monks for Holy Saturday. I am thankful for being asked to sing the alto part.

    The cross still stands on Calvary hill,
    Tree of a new and blessed life;
    And in a garden close at hand
    The Lord of life and death lies still.

    The peace of death enfolds him now,
    Anguish and pain can do no more;
    The victor, victim for our sins,
    He sleeps awhile to rise again.

    To Christ, who died for love of us
    Bearing our sins before the throne,
    To Father and to Paraclete
    Be glory till the end of time.

  5. I never understood the significance of “descended into hell” in the creed until I hung out with
    the Eastern Orthodox. This article explains that teaching very well.

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