Great and Holy Saturday

Great and Holy Saturday is the sixth and final day of Great and Holy Week - the final week before the feast of Pascha. On this day, we commemorate our Lord's repose in the tomb, and his descent into Hades. As the day comes to a close, we see the beginnings of the feast of the Resurrection.

In the Byzantine tradition, this Saturday stands alone in the year as the only Saturday on which we fast.

The Sabbath Rest of the Lord

Our Lord told his disciples that he would be crucified,, "and will be raised on the third day" (Matthew 20:19). This Saturday is the "middle day" of the three, and was also the Sabbath day, on which all those who followed the Law given to Moses were to rest from their labors, just as God had done in creation. This was to be a day holy to the Lord (Jeremiah 17:22).

Though Christ sometimes pointed out the true meaning behind the Law, he kept it himself. Here, in a mystical way, he keeps it by resting from his labors for our salvation: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfull them." (Matthew 5:17)

The Descent into Hades

At the same time, our Lord was not idle. Saint Peter later wrote: "Put to death in the flesh, [Christ] was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient" (1 Peter 3:19-20). The Church has taken these words to refer to all those who died before the coming of Christ and his death for our (and their) salvation. According to tradition, Christ announced salvation first to those who had waited for him.

The following troparion from the Sunday Canon of the Resurrection in Tone 4 applies to this day:

When your body was in the tomb, and your soul in Hades, when you were in paradise with the thief, you were at the same time, O Christ, as God upon your throne with the Father and the Spirit, infinite and filling all things.

Christ, having died, now transcends the limits of ordinary life. These same words are said at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy by the deacon as he censes the holy table, in preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist - another way in which Christ is present in many places at once.

The holy myrrh-bearers

Just as Christ was not idle, neither were the holy women who followed him. Marking the location of his burial, they prepared spices and oinments with which they intended to give his body a proper burial, once the Sabbath was over.

Even though this anointing was never to take place (since they discovered that he had risen), the hymns of this day could rightly be called the "funeral hymns of the Lord." This is probably what led to the later association of Saturdays with commemoration of the faithful departed ones who followed Christ, and our funeral service resembles greatly the office of Matins for Holy Saturday.

At Matins

This Matins service begins with the singing of the troparion, "The noble Joseph", and three processional "stations" (psalms with refrains) sung for Christ's burial. These refrains recount the burial itself, the preparations of the myrrh-bearing women, and the laments of the Mother of God. By tradition, all 176 verses of Psalm 118 (a hymn in praise of God's law) are chanted.

Then we sing the series of hymns beginning "The hosts of angels were amazed and dazzled / when they saw you, O Savior, among the dead"; the refrain is, "Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your commandments." We often think of these as Sunday hymns, but they are perhaps even more fitting here, on Holy Saturday.

There is no Gospel at this point; after Psalm 50, we sing the Canon of Holy Saturday, with its kontakion:

He who closed the depths of the sea * is beheld wrapped in linen and embalmed with myrrh; * the Deathless One is placed in a tomb like one who is dead. * The women came to embalm him, weeping bitterly and crying: * Behold the Sabbath transcendent in blessings * in which Christ has slept and will rise on the third day.

After the Psalms of Praise (148-150) and the Great Doxology, there is a procession with the burial shroud (plashchanitza), while the trisagion ("Holy God, Holy and Mighty...") is sung to the funeral melodies.

Matins concludes with three readings:

For the entire service, see the MCI booklet, Matins for Great and Holy Saturday.

It is curious that we actually hold TWO burial processions for Christ, one at Vespers on Holy Friday and one here, on Holy Saturday. It seems to be the case that the first comes from the Slavic tradition, and the second from the Greek, and this service (sometimes called "Jerusalem Matins") is more widely known in the Greek Orthodox Church. But it is also in our books, and has become popular in many of our parishes.

The Hours

If the Hours are celebrated, the troparion of Holy Saturday is sung at each Hour:

The noble Joseph took down your most pure body from the cross. * He wrapped it in a clean shroud, * and with fragrant spices laid it in a new tomb.

Since there was no morning Divine Liturgy, Typika may be celebrated after the Ninth Hour, beginning with the Beatitudes.

Vespers with Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil

This Saturday, alone of all Saturdays, is a fast day; if possible, the faithful fast until the afternoon or early evening, and so Vespers is joined to a celebration of the Divine Liturgy so that they may break the fast with the reception of Holy Communion. (We also see this pattern of an evening Liturgy on a fast day on the vigils of Christmas and Theophany, and on the days of the Great Fast.)

This celebration of Vespers is particularly solemn, and is in fact the beginning of our celebration of the Resurrection. At Psalm 140, we sing four stichera (hymns) of the Resurrection, in Tone 1, followed by stichera for Holy Saturday. But these are not hymns of mourning; quite the contrary:

Rejoice, O you heavens; * sound the trumpets, you foundations of the earth, * cry out with joy, O you mountains: * For behold, Emmanuel has nailed our sins to the Cross; * the Giver of Life has put death to death; * and the Lover of us all has raised Adam up.

Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: * Better that I had never received the One whom Mary bore; * for when he came to me, he undid my power. * He trampled the brazen gates, * and, being God, he raised up the souls which once I held. * O Lord, glory to your cross and to your resurrection.

There are fifteen readings recounting the history of salvation, with responsorial troparia after the sixth and fifteenth readings. These hymns show how the Resurrection was prefigured in the flight of Moses and the Israelites through the Red Sea, and in the protection of the three youths in the furnace in Babylon. During these readings, any catechumens who are prepared for baptism are baptized.

At the end of the readings, we sing the Church's great baptismal hymn:

All you who have been baptized into Christ have been clotherd with Christ, Alleluia!

(If there were baptisms, this hymn is sung as the newly baptized are escorted back in to the church from the place of baptism.) Then the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is celebrated; recall that we use this form of the Liturgy on days when the Church wishes us to meditate on salvation history, and on all that God has done for us.

Before the Gospel, Psalm 81 is sung as a prokeimenon: "Arise, O God, and judge the earth, for you rule all the nations." During this prokeimenon, the vestments of the clergy and the servers, and all the altar coverings, are changed from dark to light colors (and in some places the shroud is transferred from the tomb to the holy table).

The Gospel reading is Saint Matthew's account of the Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-20), and in place of the Cherubic Hymn, we sing a special hymn at the Great Entrance. This is the Great Entrance hymn of the Liturgy of Saint James of Jerusalem, which we continue to use on this day, and it is one of our most ancient hymns:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence * and with fear and trembling stand, * leaving all earth-bound thoughts behind. * For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is coming to be sacrificed * and to give himself as food to the faithful. *The choirs of angels go before him with every principality and power, * the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim * veiling their eyes, they sing the hymn: * Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

For the entire service, see the MCI booklet, Vespers with Divine Liturgy on Great and Holy Saturday.

At the end of the Divine Liturgy, bread and wine may be blessed; these are distributed to the faithful (sometimes with the wine poured over the bread) to provide them with food if they remain in church to continue the vigil. In some places, there is a custom of reading the Acts of the Holy Apostles during this vigil.

The Midnight Office

Just before midnight (or immediately before the celebration of Paschal Matins), the Midnight Office of Holy Saturday may be celebrated. This short service repeats the Canon of Holy Saturday, during which the shroud is transferred from the tomb to the holy table. It is sometimes called the service "at the tomb" (nad hrobnoje). For the entire service, see the MCI booklet, The Midnight Office of Pascha.

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