Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week are called the “Triduum Sacrum,” or “Sacred Three Days.” The Triduum liturgies serve as one extended service that allows us to meditate in various ways on the final events of Jesus’ life and death in preparation for celebrating his resurrection. St. Philip’s staff clergy help unpack the meaning behind the rituals we observe during the three days of the Triduum. Here, the Rev. Vicki Hesse explains why we do what we do on Holy Saturday.
Holy Saturday begins as “Holy Sabbath” or the Great Sabbath, an empty day. This is the day that Christ rested in the tomb and all creation awaited the resurrection. The earliest form of observance was as part of a pre-paschal fast, a day of quiet and prayer, mindful of Christ’s entombment and “descent into hell.” Celtic Philosopher John O’Donohue offers, “Death is a lonely visitor. After it visits your home, nothing is ever the same again. There is an empty place at the table; there is an absence in the house…” The simple, yet powerful, Holy Saturday liturgy (BCP 283) invites us to pause. We do not share Holy Communion. We. Can. Not. Look. Away. We wait. (The Holy Saturday service is at 11 a.m. in the Columbarium Garden.)
Then, in the evening, we gather for the Great Vigil of Easter to proclaim our participation in the dying and rising again of Jesus Christ — the center of the our faith and life. This ancient service leads us from death to life with Christ through fire, light, word, water, and bread and wine. A new fire is kindled, a great candle is lighted and by its light the Bible is read, prayer and praise are offered, and we celebrate the Easter sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. In this service, we perform the rite and take part in the saving act of the paschal mystery. (The Great Vigil of Easter takes place at 7 p.m., beginning on the steps by the Great Doors.)
Historically in the second or third century, Christians celebrated the great baptismal feast on the eve of Easter to include adult candidates for baptism, after a two-year catechesis. Later, the pilgrim Egeria (fourth century) recorded a tradition of holding a vigil of readings that encompass the whole history of human salvation leading to the Eucharist.
The powerful service of the Great Vigil consists of four parts:
- The Service of Light — Here, the light we bring into the dark church symbolizes the light of Christ shining in the darkness. This light arises from a new fire, and we share the “true light which enlightens everyone” throughout the congregation. The cantor chants an ancient prayer, the Exsultet, that celebrates not only the mighty acts of God in Moses and in Christ, but our own participation in these events with the Easter sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
- The Service of Lessons — Here, we hear the story of human salvation found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (between two and nine readings). These lessons frame the baptismal instruction and bring the teachings of Christianity to our consciousness.
- Christian Initiation — The action now moves to the font in the center of the church, where the water is blessed, the candidate(s) are baptized and the baptismal covenant is renewed by the congregation. As we celebrate the resurrection of Christ and our own participation in that resurrection, we bring new members to share in that new life through the baptismal washing, that we and they may pass with Christ through death into life.
- The Holy Eucharist — Now the whole church, having been renewed and increased by the addition of newly baptized, joins in celebrating the Easter eucharist and in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.
The service of the Great Vigil of Easter contains it all, with solid symbols of faith, fire, light, water, bread, and wine and with the proclamation of the Word of God. This service is a keystone around which the rest of the church year is built. In the Great Vigil of Easter, we celebrate and make present the pivotal events of the Old and New Testament heritage: the Passover of the Hebrews from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, the Passover of our Lord Jesus Christ from death and our own Passover from the bondage of sin and death to the glorious liberty of new life in Christ Jesus.
Sources: Leonel L. Mitchell, Lent Holy Week Easter and the Great Fifty Days: A Ceremonial Guide and Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book.