The History and Traditions of the Final Day of Lent in Catholicism

Holy Saturday is the day in the Christian liturgical calendar that celebrates the 40-hour-long vigil that the followers of Jesus Christ held after his death and burial on Good Friday and before his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday is the last day of Lent and of Holy Week, and the third day of the Easter Triduum, the three high holidays before Easter, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.


Holy Saturday Celebration

Holy Saturday is always the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The date of Easter is set by the Ecclesiastical Tables, constructed at the Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325 CE) as the first Sunday that follows the first full moon after the spring equinox (with some adjustment for the Gregorian calendar).


Holy Saturday in the Bible

According to the Bible, Jesus’s followers and family held a vigil for him outside his tomb, awaiting his foretold resurrection. Biblical references to the vigil are fairly terse, but accounts of the burial are Matthew 27:45–57; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:44–56; John 19:38–42.


“So, Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.” Mark 15:46–47.


There are no direct references in the canonical Bible to what Jesus did while the apostles and his family sat vigil, except his last words to Barabbas the thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:33–43). The authors of the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed, however, refer to this day as “The Harrowing of Hell,” when after his death, Christ descended into hell to free all the souls who had died since the beginning of the world and allow the trapped righteous souls to reach heaven.


“Then the Lord stretching forth his hand, made the sign of the cross upon Adam, and upon all his saints. And taking hold of Adam by his right hand, he ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him.” Gospel of Nicodemus 19:11–12.

The stories originate in the apocryphal text “Gospel of Nicodemus” (also known as the “Acts of Pilate” or “Gospel of Pilate”) and are referred to in passing in several places in the canonical Bible, the most significant of which is 1 Peter 3:19-20, when Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”


The History of Celebrating Holy Saturday

In the second century CE, people kept an absolute fast for the entire 40-hour period between nightfall on Good Friday (recollecting the time Christ was removed from the cross and buried in the tomb) and dawn on Easter Sunday (when Christ was resurrected).


By Constantine’s realm in the fourth century CE, the night of the vigil of Easter began Saturday at dusk, with the lighting of the “new fire,” including a large number of lamps and candles and the paschal candle. The paschal candle is very large, made of beeswax and fixed in a great candlestick created for that purpose; it is still a significant part of Holy Saturday services.


The history of fasting on Holy Saturday has varied over the centuries. As the Catholics notes, “in the early Church, this was the only Saturday on which fasting was permitted.” Fasting is a sign of penance, but on Good Friday, Christ paid with his own blood the debt of his followers’ sins, and people, therefore, had nothing to repent. Thus, for many centuries, Christians regarded both Saturday and Sunday as days on which fasting was forbidden. That practice is still reflected in the Lenten disciplines of the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, which lighten their fasts slightly on Saturdays and Sundays.


Easter Vigil Mass

In the early church, Christians gathered on the afternoon of Holy Saturday to pray and to confer the Sacrament of Baptism on catechumens converts to Christianity who had spent Lent preparing to be received into the Church. As the Catholics notes, in the early Church, “Holy Saturday and the vigil of Pentecost were the only days on which baptism was administered.” This vigil lasted through the night until dawn on Easter Sunday, when the Alleluia was sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent, and the faithful including the newly baptized broke their 40-hour fast by receiving Communion.


In the Middle Ages, beginning roughly in the eighth century, the ceremonies of the Easter Vigil, especially the blessing of new fire and the lighting of the Easter candle, began to be performed earlier and earlier. Eventually, these ceremonies were performed on Holy Saturday morning. The whole of Holy Saturday, originally a day of mourning for the crucified Christ and of expectation of His Resurrection, now became little more than an anticipation of the Easter Vigil.


20th Century Reforms

With the reform of the liturgies for Holy Week in 1956, those ceremonies were returned to the Easter Vigil itself, that is, to the Mass celebrated after sundown on Holy Saturday, and thus the original character of Holy Saturday was restored.


Until the revision of the rules for fasting and abstinence in 1969, strict fasting and abstinence continued to be practiced on the morning of Holy Saturday, thus reminding the faithful of the sorrowful nature of the day and preparing them for the joy of Easter feast. While fasting and abstinence are no longer required on Holy Saturday morning, practicing these Lenten disciplines is still a good way to observe this sacred day.


As on Good Friday, the modern church offers no Mass for Holy Saturday. The Easter Vigil Mass, which takes place after sundown on Holy Saturday, properly belongs to Easter Sunday, since liturgically, each day begins at sundown on the previous day. That is why Saturday vigil Masses can fulfil parishioners’ Sunday Duty. Unlike on Good Friday, when Holy Communion is distributed at the afternoon liturgy commemorating Christ’s Passion, on Holy Saturday the Eucharist is only given to the faithful as viaticum—that is, only to those in danger of death, to prepare their souls for their journey to the next life.


The modern Easter Vigil Mass often begins outside of the church near a charcoal brazier, representing the first vigil. The priest then leads the faithful into the church where the paschal candle is lit, and the mass is held.


Easter Vigil (Saturday after sunset) in Summary

Held after nightfall of Holy Saturday, or before dawn on Easter Day, in anticipation of the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

The Easter Vigil consists of four parts:

1.The Service of Light

2. The Liturgy of the Word

3. Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows

4. Holy Eucharist


The Service of Light

The Vigil service begins outside the church around a large fire. This new fire symbolizes the radiance of the Risen Christ dispelling the darkness of sin and death. The Paschal candle is blessed and then lit. This Paschal candle will be used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary of the church or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at baptisms and funerals, reminding all, that Christ is “light and life.”


Once the candle has been lit there follows the ancient and dramatic rite of the Lucernarium, in which the candle is carried by a priest through the nave of the darkened church, stopping three times to chant an acclamation such as ‘Christ our Light’ to which the assembly responds, ‘Thanks be to God.’ As the candle proceeds through the church, the baptized light their candles from the flame of the Paschal candle. As this symbolic “Light of Christ” spreads throughout those gathered, the darkness is dispersed. Once the procession has reached the sanctuary of the altar, with the church lit only by candlelight, the Exultet (Easter Proclamation) is intoned.


The Liturgy of the Word

The Liturgy of the Word consists of seven readings from the Old Testament, although it is permitted to reduce this number for pastoral reasons (if reduced, it is customary to use readings 1, 3, 5 and 7). Each reading is followed by a psalm and a prayer relating what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ. After these readings conclude, the Gloria is sung for the first time since before Lent (with the exception of Holy Thursday, which is the only time it is heard during the 40 days of Lent), and the church bells and the organ, silent since that point on Holy Thursday, are sounded again – The opening collect (prayer) is read. A reading from the Epistle to the Romans is proclaimed, followed by the chanting of Psalm 118. The Alleluia is sung for the first time since the beginning of Lent. The Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed.


The Rite of Christian Initiation

People desiring to full initiation in the Church who have completed their formation are formally initiated as members of the faith the Church through the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist; the latter is celebrated during the Liturgy of the Eucharist). The Initiation celebration consists of the Baptismal Liturgy (litany of the saints, blessing of the baptismal waters, Baptism celebration, and Confirmation celebration, and a renewal of Baptismal vows of all present.


The Easter Vigil then concludes with a Liturgy of the Eucharist.