“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
What do we make of Holy Saturday? It is the third day of Triduum Sacrum (Lat., ‘the sacred three days’), following Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and the day supposedly hosts the third installment of the Tenebrae service (Lat., ‘shadows’) that takes place over those same three days. Yet most congregations do not regularly have a service on Holy Saturday. Has that always been the case -- that it is a vacant day before Easter -- or is there something more to it?
Holy Saturday historically commemorates the resting of Christ’s body in the tomb. Based on early Christian accounts, it is also clear that by the 2nd century a central component of Holy Saturday was Baptism. Associating the sacrament of Baptism with the day that Christ’s body was in the tomb makes sense because Baptism connects Christ’s death to our own, and Baptism connects Christ’s resurrection to our own. Some scholars believe that the Apostle Paul was articulating the theology of early celebrations of Holy Saturday when he wrote chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans.
The earliest church had only one service of celebration marking the holy weekend (not separate services spaced between Thursday and Sunday), and this one service would begin on Saturday evening. This service was certainly the highest festival all year for the church (it was the only festival at the time), but it was a combination of a Passover celebration and an Easter celebration. (The word paschal originally meant “relating to Passover,” but this one worship service meant that the definition grew to also mean “relating to Easter.”) This festival service would start Saturday evening and continue until cockcrow on Sunday morning. You may ask why they didn’t just do it all on Sunday, since that is when the resurrection took place and because Sunday was already the day that Christians met weekly. A letter from Pliny to Trajan (c.111-123) offers us the insight that the weekly Sunday services always began before daybreak. The reason the weekly services began at such an early hour is likely a practical one: Sunday was still considered a day of work. So in order to have one long high festival service, the early Christians had to began Saturday night and conclude it on Sunday morning.
The Christians realized that starting in the dark of Saturday evening and continuing until the sunrise on Sunday had great symbolism. It showcased how baptism binds us to Christ’s death (night) and ultimately to his resurrection (day). The catechumens (those who had prepared for Baptism) would “watch” (i.e. vigil) all Saturday night, and they were baptized and received communion on Easter morning before the sun rose. So foundational was the symbolism of Baptism on Holy Saturday that it was the traditional date (and only date) of the year that Christians were baptized. In the 4th century, the Paschal Candle (the large white candle often near the baptismal font) was introduced to this worship service that had come to be known as the Paschal Vigil Service. Also in the 4th century, a division took place of the holy weekend observances (e.g. Good Friday services began to appear).
Other than baptism, what marks the Paschal Vigil Service as special? The service begins in complete darkness, but eventually a small kindling fire is lit in a bowl, and this is called the New Fire. A new Paschal Candle is blessed and then lit from the New Fire. A deacon carries the Paschal Candle to three stations among the pews, and the Lumin Christi (Lat., ‘Light of Christ) is sung at each station. While at each station, members of the congregation light individual candles from the Paschal Candle. Then the procession continues up the three steps, when all the lights of the church are thrown on and the Exsultet (Lat., ‘Easter Proclamation’) is sung.
When the service moves into the baptismal liturgy, the Paschal Candle is carried to the water. When the water is blessed, the candle is lowered into the water and raised (symbolizing Christ’s death and resurrection). Then Baptism takes place (for Roman Catholics, this is also the time for Confirmation). If there is no Baptism or Confirmation, a simple blessing of the water occurs. Then those present renew their baptismal vows and the celebrant sprinkles the congregation with water. If the service moves into Sunday morning, the service concludes with the Easter Eucharist.
What happened to the Paschal Vigil Service that it has -- for the most part -- fallen out of practice? That can be traced back to changes made centuries ago. In the western church, the Paschal Vigil Service was moved to Saturday afternoon in the 10th century, and in the 14th century it was moved to Saturday morning. Those moves effectively removed all of the symbolism of the service, which in turn removed the desire to keep this the one day for Baptism. The Roman Catholic Church went through a revision of its Holy Week observances in the early 1950s, and that is when the Paschal Vigil Service was restored to the late evening of Holy Saturday. The eastern church still observes the service on Saturday morning.
The question remains; “What do we Lutherans do on Holy Saturday?” Some congregations have begun to reclaim the Paschal Vigil Service and have made it a part of their Tenebrae observances. Short of offering that, what are we to do to allow this day to be something more than the gap between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? My pastoral advice is to recognize that historically this is the day that the church has dug into its theology of Baptism. The earliest Christians deeply recognized that through Baptism we are bound to Christ’s death and resurrection, and the eve of Easter is the best day for it. I feel the least we can do is individually -- and perhaps collectively in voluntary small groups -- read the entirety of Romans chapter 6. Dwell on the words that the Apostle Paul wrote and ruminate on the richness of their meaning. May we all reflect on these words, then ponder and act on how our baptism intimately connects us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then allow that to be the bedrock for your praise on Easter Sunday.
Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2005. Print.