Today, after the emotional liturgical exercises of Good Friday, we wait. Impatient for Easter morning, we have (in the middle ages) moved the celebration of the Resurrection back. Once, the Easter Vigil was an all-night service, with the first Alleluia as the sun rose on Easter morning. Our current practice of kindling the fires after dusk on Easter Saturday and moving straight into the Mass is only six or seven hundred years old.
I discovered the Easter Vigil a comparatively short time ago – when my children were teens. I already had toddlers when I became a Catholic, and I had no idea for twenty years that I was missing the most important and beautiful liturgy of the year. The vigil is divided into four parts: 1) service of light, 2) liturgy of the Word, 3) liturgy of Baptism, and 4) liturgy of the Eucharist. Here’s more about what happens.
In Western churches the empty tomb is what you will see depicted on Easter Sunday. But Orthodox services recreate the harrowing of hell. Specifically, the priest exits the church with a cross. The sanctuary is immersed in darkness and the doors are closed. The priest then knocks on the door and proclaims, “Open the doors to the Lord of the powers, the king of glory.” Inside the church the people make a great noise of rattling chains which conveys the resistance of hell to the coming of Christ. Eventually, the doors are opened up, the cross enters, and the church is lit and filled with incense. Which is pretty cool. I would have liked an Easter service like this when I was a kid.
Beck indicates that the Anglican church has nearly forgotten this doctrine. But we Catholics are still taught that Jesus descended into the place where the faithful dead waited to call them home to heaven.
On this side of the empty tomb we already know that Easter will come, as it already has. We are fully aware that the tomb was empty and the account that will be read on the Lord´s Day will not change.
On that side the tomb is occupied and they did not know what to expect. Perhaps only his mother Mary, gazing at a few stains of blood still on her hands, knew that it couldn´t be the end.
So, on this day of silence, as we remember Christ in the tomb, we also remember that while it was silent on earth, the spirit world as quite active. Today is the Day of Descent, the “Harrowing of Hell.” It was here He again was able to cry out those words, “It is finished!”
“He descended into hell…” The Catholic Catechism quotes from an ancient Holy Saturday homily when addressing the creedal statement that has been apart of Christian faith since the very beginning.
That Homily, by an anonymous priest, contains these profound words:
“Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep.”
Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” [Catechism, Profession of Faith, 635]
Silence and stillness reigns today. We can reflect on Christ´s descent to the abode of the dead, there declaring that the final death has been conquered once-and-for-all. He preached hope to the hopeless and life those who had none.
Holy Saturday is a day to pray for those who walk among us as the living dead. Their hope is placed in all things other than Christ and, for them, death will be ultimate, final, and hopeless.
Yet, they are living in the interval. The thunder has not sounded, signaling the end. Christ is there for them, declaring the same hope he did on the first Holy Saturday.
Let us pray for our family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even those who are known to God but merely cross our path. (Deacon Keith Fournier)