After recollecting our Lord’s Passion and Death on Good Friday, Holy Saturday begins as a day of quiet prayer and reflection. It is a day when no Mass is celebrated in the Catholic Church (until the solemn Easter Vigil that begins after sundown). Instead, the faithful pray and meditate on the great sacrifice our Lord has made for all of us, and anticipate His Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
I spend the day in the quiet, thanking Jesus for the ultimate gift that He gave to all of us on Good Friday. I try to place myself in the confusion and fear (as well as hope) that the Blessed Mother, the apostles, and the other witnesses to Jesus’ Passion undoubtedly felt on that first Holy Saturday. In doing so, I realize how fortunate I am to know how the story ends and that Jesus Christ will be rising on Sunday morning!
As the day progresses, my thoughts turn to the Easter Vigil Mass. For those who have not experienced an Easter Vigil Mass, I strongly encourage you to do so when you are able (whether attending in person or watching at home, perhaps viewing Pope Francis offering the Easter Vigil Mass from St. Peter’s in Rome). It is a long Mass (usually three hours) that gives us the opportunity to keep vigil for the Lord in the greatest solemnity of the year. You will hear, see, and feel the entirety of our salvation history and be united with members of the Church throughout all time.
The Easter Vigil Mass is divided into four parts: (1) The Solemn Beginning of the Vigil (or the Lucernarium); (2) The Liturgy of the Word; (3) The Baptismal Liturgy; and (4) The Liturgy of the Eucharist. Each of the parts of the Mass have unique characteristics and I will point out several that are significant to me.
The Solemn Beginning of the Vigil begins in the dark but you will see light beginning to break through.
The church is dark before the priest blesses a fire outside the church and then prepares and lights the Paschal candle. After the blessing, there is a procession in which the Paschal candle is brought into the dark church, with the procession stopping at certain intervals for prayer. While the procession continues, the Paschal candle is used to light the small candles that each member of the congregation has been given. It takes your breath away when you see the wave of light slowly move through the dark church representing Christ spreading His light throughout our world. When the candles are lit and the procession reaches the front of the church, the Easter Proclamation, or Exsultet, is chanted by a deacon. The Easter Proclamation is filled with images of light and recalls Christ’s death and Resurrection, giving us time to reflect on what we have prepared for during Lent and are now able to celebrate as Christ is risen. The candles that the congregation hold are typically extinguished after the Easter Proclamation and the church is again dark.
The Liturgy of the Word during the Easter Vigil is unlike the Liturgy of the Word that you experience during a normal Sunday Mass.
It is an extended liturgy that includes up to nine readings from the Old and New Testament, with Responsorial Psalms after each reading. These readings (which begin with the creation story from the Book of Genesis, then move to Abraham’s sacrifice and the Israelite exodus from Egypt from the Book of Exodus, and conclude with the great prophets Isaiah, Baruch, and Ezekiel) highlight crucial moments in our salvation story. This is our story of healing and redemption and it reminds me that I am part of this great story too. After the readings and psalms conclude, the lights are raised, the candles lit, and the sounds of the Gloria and bells fill the church (for the first time since Lent began). We can now celebrate that our Lord has risen and has overcome death and sin for us. The sounds and the light (arising from the previously dark church) fill my soul with joy. We then move to a reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans proclaiming Christ risen from the dead and dying no more. The Alleluias ring out, also for the first time since Lent began, and we hear the Gospel reading of Jesus’s Resurrection. This year, the Gospel reading is from Mark 16: 1-7, in which Mary Magdalen, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome are greeted by a young man at the tomb with these words:
Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him.Focus on His truth, Mark 16:6
The Mass moves to the Baptismal Liturgy.
This is a very special and important part of the Mass for me as it is the time when adults entering the Church experience the initiation sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. I spent many years working with catechumens and candidates in the RCIA process and was so privileged and blessed to be part of their faith journeys that culminated in the reception of sacraments at the Easter Vigil Mass. At my parish, there would be a retreat for them on Good Friday evening. Each adult that was to enter the church was encouraged to take a glass, fill it with water to the level that represented where they were in their faith journey, and tell the group their story. It was truly amazing to hear the faith and hope that these soon-to-be Catholics shared with us. They then poured the water into a pitcher. The water in that pitcher was added to the baptismal pool water so that each adult would be baptized with each other’s faith journeys. What a powerful statement of faith and community! To see the glow on the faces of the newly baptized and confirmed helps strengthen my faith every year. After the sacramental rites, the congregation is given the opportunity to renew their baptismal vows and be sprinkled with holy water. We are also blessed with the faith journeys of the new members of our Church in the sprinkling of the holy water, united in our faith, the faith of our Church.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist then follows. While it is the same liturgy we experience at all other Masses, it takes on heightened importance during the Easter Vigil.
We celebrated the institution of the Holy Eucharist during the Holy Thursday Mass and now once again recreate that sacrament on the altar during the Easter Vigil. The newly baptized and confirmed will receive the body and blood of our dear Lord for the first time at this Mass. So many of them have been longing to receive this sacrament and you will see many of them overcome with emotion as they return to their pews after their First Communion. When I see their faces, I am always reminded to not take the miracle of the Holy Eucharist for granted.
The conclusion of the Easter Vigil Mass is really the conclusion of the Easter Triduum that began on Holy Thursday. The recessional will include one of the great Easter hymns, such as “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” To join our voices together in proclaiming this great mystery that we just commemorated invigorates me in my faith as we enter the Easter season.
Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! May this truth fill your heart with peace, joy, and hope, and may you be Smitten with Goodness during this Easter season!