Saturday, April 15, 2017


Maria Augusta Trapp (1905-1987) spoke for a generation of mid-20th-century liturgical enthusiasts in Around the Year with the Trapp Family (1955), when she praised Pope Pius XII for restoring the Easter Vigil to its nocturnal setting. "We cannot be grateful enough that the Holy Father, Pius XII, has given back to us the ancient Easter Night! Even as children we felt that something was not quite as it should be when the Church broke out early in the morning of Holy Saturday in the threefold Alleluia, while while the Gospel told us that Our Lord was resting in the grave to rise on Easter Sunday morning. Now the word of the Holy Father has put things straight Gospel told us that Our Lord was resting in the grave to rise on Easter and Holy Saturday has regained its ancient character."

That "ancient character" of Holy Saturday is what Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae (1955) called "the special liturgical nature of Holy Saturday," and Pius XII's Holy Week reform did try to instill among us moderns the ancient idea of Holy Saturday as "a day of the greatest sorrow when the Church lingers at the Lord’s tomb, meditating upon His Passion and Death and abstaining from the Sacrifice of the Mass, with the sacred table left bare; until, after the solemn Vigil or nocturnal expectation of the Resurrection, it gives way to paschal joys whose abundance flows over into the following days." This is the day of Christ's descent among the dead, which we profess in the Apostles' Creed, the spirit of which is so eloquently expressed in the ancient Holy Saturday homily which is now the second reading in the post-1969 Office of Readings for this Saturday. 

That homily speaks of "a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness." Of course, unless one lives in an enclosed monastery (and maybe not even there), one is unlikely to encounter too much "silence and stillness" on Holy Saturday. The secular world, of course, keeps to its own rhythm and schedule. So Holy Saturday is like any other spring Saturday with its plethora of activities, which exert their attractive pull on us and get in the way of any "silence and stillness." And, wherever Easter still impacts secular culture, whether in the guise of Easter Egg hunts or in the familiar form of family dinners, it is inevitably also a day of shopping and domestic preparation.

Likewise in churches, where theoretically it should all be otherwise, there is little "silence and stillness" on Holy Saturday. In the old days, when the Easter Vigil was celebrated early Saturday morning and the Lenten fast ended happily at noon, the rest of the day was taken up with beautifying the church for Easter, while priests settled in for six or so hours of confessions in preparation for the great feast. Those long lines of Holy Saturday confessions are largely gone, of course, but the busy work of beautifying the church still occupies time and attention and is likely if anything even less like "silence and stillness" than it then was. And this is so even though the Vigil has not yet been celebrated, and it is still liturgically only the second day of the Triduum, when the church should still be bare with only the uncovered Cross as a focus of attention!

Obviously, the late hour of the Vigil, coupled with the fact that the Missal of Paul VI has replaced the traditional formula of Vigil followed by Mass with what is now essentially just one long Mass, makes it impractical to postpone beautifying the church until after the Vigil. Also, with the Vigil now assimilated to the even more modern practice of anticipating Sunday Mass on Saturday evening, people expect to experience the fullness of Easter at the Vigil, not just a first glimpse of it in the traditional manner. Indeed, the rubrics now speak of the Vigil as "a paschal Mass of the Sunday of the Resurrection." The casualty of all of this is, of course, the "silence and stillness" that were supposed somehow to characterize Holy Saturday.

The lessons are obvious. First of all, in case we didn't know it already, we are just not good at "silence and stillness." Secondly, we are not good at waiting either. The Easter Vigil is increasingly celebrated earlier and earlier, assimilating it more and more to the standard Saturday night schedule - exactly what happened centuries ago, when the Vigil got assimilated to the standard Lenten afternoon schedule and then got anticipated earlier when all the other Lenten afternoon were also anticipated). So, as in the past, it increasingly already looks and feels like Easter by noon on Saturday!

So much for Holy Saturday having "regained its ancient character"! But that we have been there before and have lasted this long and managed well enough!

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