There is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the king is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. [From an ancient Holy Saturday Homily]
I have very distinct childhood memories of Easter Eve (even more distinct, surprisingly, than Christmas Eve, which presumably must have mattered much more to a child). My parents both worked on Saturdays in those days, and so Saturdays were spent with my grandmother. I can remember her bringing me to church sometime during the day on Saturday to see that the statues had been uncovered after the Easter Vigil service earlier that morning. What I remember best, however, was how at noon (when Lent officially ended and Easter began in those days) my grandmother turned on the kitchen radio tuned to the Italian station, which played the sound of the bells of Rome's hundreds of churches (recorded at noon Rome time, some six hours earlier). Then, as we listened to the bells, we ate our first Easter egg.
In faraway Kentucky on Holy Saturday 1949, the monk Thomas Merton wrote in his Journal: "The confusion of sorrow and joy is so complex that you never know where you are. ... This is the product of the historical circumstances through which the Holy Saturday liturgy has passed." It was those historical circumstances which Pius XII's Holy Week reforms in the 1950s were intended to undo by returning the Eater Vigil to Saturday evening and transforming Holy Saturday into a day of waiting "at the Lord's tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his passion and Death and on his Descent into Hell," while "awaiting his Resurrection" (Roman Missal).
Of course, nothing like that is happening. On the one hand, the secular world goes about its workaday business or else has the frivolous feel of vacation time in those countries where Easter Weekend still has a holiday character. In churches, on the other hand, this is a time of frenetic activity and lavish decoration, all in preparation for the evening's Vigil service. The latter, meanwhile, is now no longer a preparation for the main event of Easter Sunday but, for most who attend, a substitute for Easter itself. This is just the most extreme example of the odd contemporary practice of allowing Mass on Saturday to substitute for Mass on Sunday. Indeed, the Vigil service itself, certainly once the Exsultet is over, is essentially structured not at all like a traditional Vigil but rather as a very long Easter Mass. (Its unconscionable length and oddly late hour are undoubtedly among the reasons why so few feel inspired to attend what must rank as one of the least well attended liturgies of the entire year.)
So, while the liturgy that inspired Merton's remark has disappeared, Merton's insight remains. Holy Saturday still remains a confusing complexity, "the product of the historical circumstances through which the Holy Saturday liturgy has passed." And any notion of reviving Holy Saturday as a day of waiting "at the Lord's tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his passion and Death and on his Descent into Hell," while "awaiting his Resurrection" remains as ephemeral and fantastic as observing Advent has become - and for more or less the same reasons.
Back in the 19th century, when the subsequent liturgical changes would have been well nigh unimaginable, Dom Prosper Gueranger wrote: "there is an apparent contradiction between the mystery of Holy Saturday and the Divine Service which is celebrated upon it; Christ is still in the Tomb, and yet we are celebrating his Resurrection: the hours preceding Mass are mournful—and before mid-day, the paschal joy will have filled our hearts. We will conform to the present order of the Holy Liturgy, thus entering into the spirit of the Church, who has thought proper to give her children a foretaste of the joys of Easter."
Today, we must do the same, conforming our spirits to the present order of things, in which, despite all attempts at restoration and reform, the contradiction continues between "the mystery of Holy Saturday" and the way we actually observe and experience it now.
(Photo: Easter Vigil 2017, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN)