Sabbatum Sanctum – Holy Saturday: “Watching” and The Easter Vigil of the Holy Night
On Holy Saturday the Church waits at the Lord’s tomb, meditating on His suffering and death. The altar is left bare and the sacrifice of the Mass is not celebrated. Only after the solemn vigil during the night, held in anticipation of the resurrection, does the Easter celebration begin, with a spirit of joy that overflows into the following period of fifty days.
Holy Saturday (from Sabbatum Sanctum, its official liturgical name) is sacred as the day of the Lord’s rest; it has been called the “Second Sabbath” after creation. The day is and should be the most calm and quiet day of the entire Church year, a day broken by no liturgical function. Christ lies in the grave, the Church sits near and mourns. After the great battle He is resting in peace but upon Him we see the scars of intense suffering…The mortal wounds on His Body remain visible…Jesus’ enemies are still furious, attempting to obliterate the very memory of the Lord by lies and slander.
Mary and the disciples are grief-stricken, while the Church must mournfully admit that too many of her children return home from Calvary cold and hard of heart. When Mother Church reflects upon all of this, it seems as if the wounds of her dearly Beloved were again beginning to bleed.
According to tradition, the entire body of the Church is represented in Mary: she is the “credentium collectio universa” (Congregation for Divine Worship, Lettera circolare sulla preparazione e celebrazione delle feste pasquali, 73). Thus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she waits near the Lord’s tomb, as she is represented in Christian tradition, is an icon of the Virgin Church keeping vigil at the tomb of her Spouse while awaiting the celebration of His resurrection.
The pious exercise of the Ora di Maria is inspired by this intuition of the relationship between the Virgin Mary and the Church: while the body of her Son lays in the tomb and His soul has descended to the dead to announce liberation from the shadow of darkness to His ancestors, the Blessed Virgin Mary, foreshadowing and representing the Church, awaits, in faith, the victorious triumph of her Son over death. — Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy
“This same night is a night of watching kept to the Lord . . . throughout every generation” (cf. Ex 12:42)
On this holy night we celebrate the Easter Vigil, the first — indeed the “mother” — of all vigils of the liturgical year. On this night, as is sung over and over again in the Preconio, we walk once more the path of humanity from creation to the culminating event of salvation, the death and resurrection of Christ.
The light of Him who “has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20) makes this memorable night, which is rightly considered the “heart” of the liturgical year, “bright as the day” (Ps 139:12). On this night the entire Church keeps watch and recalls, in meditation, the significant stages of God’s saving intervention in the universe.
“A night of watching kept to the Lord”. There is a twofold significance to this solemn Easter Vigil, so rich with symbols accompanied by an extraordinary abundance of biblical texts. On the one hand, it is the prayerful memory of the mirabilia Dei, in the re-presentation of key texts from the Sacred Scriptures, from creation to the sacrifice of Isaac, to the passage through the Red Sea, to the promise of the New Covenant.
On the other hand, this evocative vigil is the trusting expectation of the complete fulfilment of the ancient promises. The memory of God’s work reaches its climax in the resurrection of Christ and is projected onto the eschatological event of the parusia. We thus catch a glimpse, on this night of Passover, of the dawning of that day that never ends, the day of the Risen Christ, which inaugurates the new life, the “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet 3:13; cf. Is 65:17; 66:22; Rev 21:1).
From its very beginnings, the Christian community placed the celebration of Baptism within the context of the Easter Vigil. Here too, on this night, some catechumens will be immersed with Jesus into his death to rise with Him to immortal life. Thus the wonder of the mysterious spiritual rebirth, wrought by the Holy Spirit, is renewed; the rebirth that incorporates the newly baptised into the people of the new and final Covenant, sealed by the death and resurrection of Christ.
Together with those who will shortly receive Baptism, the liturgy invites all of us here present to renew the promises of our own Baptism. The Lord asks us to renew the expression of our full obedience to Him and of our total dedication to the service of his Gospel.
Beloved Brothers and Sisters! If this mission may sometimes seem difficult, call to mind the words of the Risen Lord: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). Certain of His presence, you shall fear no difficulty and no obstacle. His word will enlighten you; His Body and His Blood will nourish you and sustain you on your daily journey to eternity.
At the side of each of you there will always be Mary, as she was present among the Apostles, frightened and confused at the time of trial. And with her faith she will show you, beyond the night of the world, the glorious dawn of the resurrection. Amen
St Pope John Paul II