A night has passed over the Tomb, wherein lies the buried the Body of the Man-God. Death is triumphant in that silent cave, and holds captive Him that gives life to every creature : — but his triumph will soon be at an end. The Soldiers may watch, as best they will, over that Grave : they cannot hold Jesus prisoner, as soon as the moment fixed for his Resurrection comes. The holy Angels are there, profoundly adoring the lifeless Body of Him, whose Blood is to reconcile all things, both on earth, and in heaven. This Body, though for a brief interval, separated from the Soul, is still united to the Person of the Son of God ; so, likewise, the Soul, during its separation from the Body, has not, for an instant, lost its union with the Word. The Divinity remains also united with the Blood that lies sprinkled on Calvary, and which, at the moment of the Resurrection of the Man- God, is to enter once more into his sacred veins.
Let us also return to the Sepulchre, and adore the Body of our Buried Jesus. Now, at last, we understand what sin has done : By sin, death entered into the world ; and it passed upon all men. Though Jesus knew no sin, yet has he permitted Death to have dominion over him, in order that he might make it less bitter to us, and by his Resurrection, restore unto us that eternal life, of which we had been deprived by sin. How gratefully we should appreciate this Death of our Jesus ! By becoming Incarnate, he became a Servant ; his Death was a still deeper humiliation. The sight of this Tomb, wherein his Body lies lifeless and cold, teaches us something far more important than the power of death : — it reveals to us the immense, the incomprehensible love of God for man. He knew that we were to gain by his humiliations : the greater his humiliations, the greater our exaltation : this was his principle, and it led him to what seems like an excess ! Let us, then, love this sacred Sepulchre, which is to give us Life. We have thanked him for having died for us upon the Cross ; let us thank him, but most feelingly, for having humbled himself, for our sakes, even to the Tomb!
And now let us visit the Holy Mother, who has passed the night in Jerusalem, going over, in saddest memory the scenes she has witnessed. Her Jesus has been a Victim to every possible insult and cruelty : he has been crucified : his Precious Blood has flowed in torrents from those Five Wounds : he is dead, and now lies buried in yonder Tomb, as though he were but a mere man, yea the most abject of men. How many tears have fallen, during these long hours, from the eyes of the Daughter of David ! and yet, her Son has not come back to her ! Near her is Magdalene ; heart-broken by yesterday’s events, she has no words to tell her grief, for Jesus is gone, and, as she thinks for ever. The other Women, less loved by Jesus than Magdalene, yet, most dear to him, stand around the disconsolate Mother. They have braved every insult and danger in order to remain on Calvary till all was over, and they intend returning thither with Magdalene, as soon as the Sabbath is over, to honour the Tomb and the Body of Jesus.
John, the adopted son of Mary, and the Beloved Disciple of Jesus, is oppressed with sorrow. Others, also, of the Apostles and Disciples visit the house of mourning. Peter, penitent and humble, fears not to appear before the Mother of Mercy. Among the Disciples, are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. We may easily imagine the conversation, — it is on the Sufferings and Death of Jesus, and on the ingratitude of the Jews. The Church, in the 7th Responsory of to-day’s Tenebrae, represents these men as saying : ” Behold ! how the Just One dieth, and there ” is none that taketh it to heart. Iniquity has had ” its way. He was silent as a Lamb under his shearer, ” and he opened not his mouth. He was taken away ” from distress and judgment : but his memory shall “be in peace.”
Thus speak the men ! — the women are thinking of their morrow’s visit to the Sepulchre ! The saintliness of Jesus, his goodness, his power, his Sufferings, his Death, — everything is remembered, except his Resurrection, which they had often heard him say should certainly and speedily take place. Mary alone lives in expectation of his triumph. In her was verified that expression of the Holy Ghost, where, speaking of the Valiant Woman, he says : Her lamp shall not be put out in the night. 1 Her courage fails not, because she knows that the Sepulchre must yield up its Dead, and her Jesus will rise again to Life. St. Paul tells us that our religion is vain, unless we have faith in the mystery of our Saviour’s Resurrection ; — where was this faith on the day after our Lord’s Death ? In one heart only, — and that was Mary’s. As it was her chaste womb, that had held within it Him, whom heaven and earth cannot contain, — so on this day, by her firm and unwavering faith, she resumes within her single self the whole Church. How sacred is this Saturday, which, notwithstanding all its sadness, is such a day of glory to the Mother of Jesus ! It is on this account that the Church has consecrated to Mary the Saturday of every week.
But it is time to repair to the House of God. The Bells are still silent : our faith must speak to us, and make us eager to assist at the grand Mysteries, which the Liturgy is about to celebrate. Surely, the christian sentiment must be dead in them who can be willingly absent from the Church on such a morning as this. No, it cannot be, that we, who have followed the celebration of the Mysteries of our Religion thus far, can flag now, and lose the graces of this morning’s magnificent Service.
THE MORNING SERVICE.
It was the practice of the Church, and one that had been handed down from the earliest Ages, that the Sacrifice of the Mass should not be offered up either yesterday or to-day. Yesterday, the anniversary of Jesus’ Death, was exclusively devoted to the remembrance of the Mystery of Calvary, and a holy fear kept the Church from renewing that Sacrifice upon her Altars. For the same reason, she abstained to-day, also, from its celebration. The Burial of Christ is a sequel of his Passion : and during these hours when his Body lay lifeless in the Tomb, it was fitting that the Sacrifice, wherein he is offered as the glorious and Risen Jesus, should be suspended.
Even the Greek Church, which never fasts on the Saturdays of Lent, follows the practice of the Latin Church for this Saturday : she not only fasts, but she even omits the celebration of the Mass of the Pre-sanctified.
Such, we repeat, was the discipline of the Latin Church for nearly a thousand years : but about the 11th century, an important change began to be introduced with regard to the celebration of Mass on Holy Saturday. The Mass which, hitherto, had been celebrated during the Night preceding Easter Sunday, — then began to be anticipated, on the Saturday ; but it was always considered as the Mass of the hour of our Lord’s Resurrection, and not as the Mass of Holy Saturday. The relaxations, that had been introduced with regard to Fasting, were the occasion of this change in the Liturgy. In the first ages, the Faithful watched the whole night in the Church, awaiting the hour when our Lord rose triumphant from the Tomb. They also assisted at the solemn administration of Baptism to the Catechumens, which so sublimely expressed the passing from spiritual death to the life of grace. There was no other Vigil in the whole Year, which was so solemnly observed as this : but it lost a great portion of its interest, when the necessity of baptising Adults was removed by Christianity having triumphed wheresoever it had been preached. The Orientals have kept up the ancient tradition to this day : but in the West, dating from the 11th century, the Mass of the Resurrection Hour has been gradually anticipated, until it has been brought even to the morning of Holy Saturday. Durandus of Menda, who wrote his Rational of the Divine Offices, towards the close of the 13th century, tells us, that in his time, there were very few Churches which observed the primitive custom: even these soon conformed to the general practice of the Latin Church.
As a result of this change, there is an apparent contradiction between the mystery of Holy Saturday and the Divine Service which is celebrated upon it ; Christ is still in the Tomb, and yet we are celebrating his Resurrection : the hours preceding Mass are mournful, — and before mid-day, the paschal joy will have filled our hearts. We will conform to the present order of the Holy Liturgy, thus entering into the spirit of the Church, who has thought proper to give her children a foretaste of the joys of Easter. We will give a general view of the solemn Service, at which we are going to assist ; afterwards, we will explain each portion, as it comes.
The great object of the whole of to-day’s Service, and the centre to which every one of the ceremonies converges, — is the Baptism of the Catechumens. The Faithful must keep this incessantly before them, or they will be at a loss how to understand or profit by the Liturgy of to-day. First of all, there is the Blessing of the new Fire, and the Incense. This is followed by the Blessing of the Paschal Candle. Immediately after this, are read the Twelve Prophecies, which have reference to the mysteries of today’s Service. As soon as the Prophecies are finished, a procession is formed to the Baptistery, and the Water is blessed. The matter of Baptism thus prepared, the Catechumens receive the Sacrament of Regeneration. Confirmation is then administered to them by the Bishop. Immediately after this, the Holy Sacrifice is celebrated in honour of our Lord’s Resurrection, and the Neophytes partake of the Divine Mysteries. Finally the joyous Vesper-Office comes in, and brings to a termination the longest and most trying Service of the Latin Liturgy. In order to assist our readers to enter fully into its spirit, we will go back a thousand years, and imagine ourselves to be celebrating this solemn Eve of Easter in one of the ancient Cathedrals of Italy, or of our own dear land.
At Rome, the Station is at St. John Lateran, the Mother and Mistress of all Churches. The Sacrament of Regeneration is administered in the Baptistery of Constantine. The sight of these venerable Sanctuaries carries us back in thought to the 4th century ; there, each year, holy Baptism is conferred upon some adult ; and a numerous Ordination adds its own to the sacred pomp of this day, whose liturgy, as we have just said, is the richest of the whole year.
THE BLESSING OF THE NEW FIRE AND INCENSE.
Last Wednesday, the Catechumens were told to present themselves at the Church, for the hour of toay’s Tierce, (that is, nine o’clock in the morning.) It is the final scrutiny. The Priests are there to receive them ; they who have not previously been examined upon the Symbol, are now questioned. The Lord’s Prayer, and the biblical attributes of the four Evangelists, having been explained, one of the Priests dismisses the Candidates for Baptism, bidding them spend the interval in recollection and prayer.
At the hour of None, (our three o’clock in the afternoon,) the Bishop and all the Clergy repair to the Church, and Holy Saturday Vigil begins from this moment. The first ceremony consists in the blessing of the new fire, which is to furnish light for the whole Service. It was the daily custom, in the first Ages of the Church, to strike a light from a flint, before Vespers : from this the lamps and candles were lighted for the celebration of that Hour, and the light thus procured was kept up in the Church till the Vespers of the following day. The Church of Rome observed this custom with great solemnity on Maundy Thursday morning, and the new fire received a special blessing. We learn from a letter written, in the 8th century, by Pope St. Zachary to St. Boniface, Archbishop of Mayence, — that three lamps were lighted from this fire, which were then removed to some safe place, and care was taken that their light was kept in. It was from these lamps that the light for Holy Saturday Night was taken. In the following century, under St. Leo the Fourth, whose Pontificate lasted from 847 to 855, the custom of every day procuring new fire from a flint was extended also to Holy Saturday.
It is not difficult to understand the meaning of this ceremony, which is now not observed by the Latin Church save on this day. Our Lord said of himself : I am the Light of the world. Light, then, is an image of the Son of Good. Stone, also, is one of the types under which the Scriptures speak to us of the Messias. St. Peter, and St. Paul, quoting the words of the Prophet Isaias, speak of Jesus as the Comer- Stone. The spark which is struck from the flint represents our Lord rising from his rock-hewn Sepulchre, through the Stone that had been rolled against it.
It is fitting, therefore, that this fire which is to provide light for the Paschal Candle, as well as for those that are upon the Altar, should receive a special blessing, and be triumphantly shown to the Faithful. All the Lamps in the Church have been extinguished ; formerly, the Faithful used to put out the fires in their houses, before going to the Church : they lighted them, on their return, with light taken from the blessed Fire, which they received as a symbol of our Lord’s Resurrection. Let us not here omit to notice, that the putting out of all the lights in the Church is a symbol of the abrogation of the Old Law, which ended with the rending of the Veil of the Temple ; and that the new Fire represents the preaching of the New Law, whereby our Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, fulfilled all the figures of the ancient Covenant.
In order to help our readers to enter more fully into the mystery of the ceremony we are describing, we will here mention a miracle which was witnessed for many centuries. The clergy and people of Jerusalem assembled for the Service of Easter Eve in the Church of Holy Sepulchre. After waiting for some time in silence, one of the lamps that were suspended over our Lord’s Tomb, was miraculously lighted. The other lamps and torches throughout the Church were lighted from this, and the Faithful took its holy flame with them to their homes. It would seem, that this annual miracle first began after the Saracens had taken possession of Jerusalem ; God so ordaining, that it might be a proof to these Infidels, of the Divinity of the Christian Religion. The historians of those times, who have written upon the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, all speak of this miracle as of an incontestable fact ; and when Pope Urban the Second went to France, there to preach the first Crusade, he brought forward this miracle as one of the motives, which should inspire the Faithful with zeal for the defence of the Sepulchre of Christ. When our Lord, in the unsearchable ways of his justice, permitted Jerusalem to be re-conquered by the Infidels, the Miracle ceased, nor has it ever been witnessed from that time. Our readers have no doubt heard of the scandalous scene, which is now repeated every Holy Saturday in the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem : we allude to the deception practised by the schismatic Greek Priests, whereby they persuade their deluded people that their ingenious trick for lighting a lamp is the continuation of the Miracle.
The Church also blesses the five grains of Incense which are to be used in this Morning’s Service. They represent the perfumes prepared by Magdalene and her holy companions for the embalming the Body of Jesus. The Prayer said by the Bishop, when blessing the Incense, not only shows us the connection there is between it and the Light, but it also teaches us what is the power these several sacred objects have against the wicked spirits.
The Bishop and his attendants go, in procession, from the Church to the place where he is to bless the Fire and Incense. The Fire, as we have already said, is the symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ ; and the Sepulchre, whence he is to rise to life, is outside the walls of Jerusalem. The holy Women and the Apostles, when they go to the Sepulchre, will have to go forth from the City.
The Bishop, having come to the appointed place, blesses the Fire by the following Prayers.
THE PASCHAL CANDLE.
The sun is setting, and our earth will soon be mantled in darkness. The Church has provided a torch, which is to spread its light upon us during the whole of this long Vigil. It is of an unusual size. It stands alone, and is of a pillar- like form. It is the symbol of Christ. Before being lighted, its scriptural type is the pillar of a cloud, which hid the Israelites when they went out from Egypt ; under this form, it is the figure of our Lord, when lying lifeless in the tomb. When lighted, we must see in it both the pillar of fire, which guided the people of God, and the glory of our Jesus risen from his grave. Our holy Mother the Church, would have us enthusiastically love this glorious symbol, and speaks its praises to us in all the magnificence of her inspired eloquence. As early as the beginning of the 5th century, Pope St. Zozimus extended to all the Churches of the City of Rome, the privilege of blessing the Paschal Candle, although Baptism was administered no where but in the Baptistery of St. John Lateran. The object of this grant was, that all the Faithful might share in the holy impressions which so solemn a rite is intended to produce. It was for the same intention that, later, every Church, even though it had no Baptismal Font, was permitted to have the Blessing of the Paschal Candle.
The Deacon proclaims the Easter Solemnity to the people, whilst chanting the praises of this sacred object : and whilst celebrating the glory of Him, whose emblem it is, he becomes the herald of the Resurrection. The Altar, the Sanctuary, the Bishop, all are in the colour of the Lenten rite ; the Deacon alone is vested in white. At other times, he would not presume to raise his voice as he is now going to do, in the solemn tone of a Preface : but this is the Eve of the Resurrection, and the Deacon, as the interpreters of the Liturgy tell us, represents Magdalene and the holy women, on whom our Lord conferred the honour of being the first to know his Resurrection, and to whom he gave the mission of preaching to the very Apostles, that he had risen from the dead, and would meet them in Galilee.
The Torch of the Resurrection now sheds its light from the Ambo throughout the holy place, and gladdens the hearts of the Faithful. How solemn a preparation for what is now to engage our attention, — the Baptism of the Catechumens, whose instruction and progress in good works we have followed with such interest during the past forty days ! They are assembled together under the outward porch of the Church. The Priests are performing over them the preparatory rites, which embody such profound teaching, and were instituted by the Apostles. First of all, the sign of the cross is made upon their foreheads ; and then, the Priest, imposing his hand upon the head of each Catchumen, adjures Satan to depart from this soul and body, and give place to Christ. Imitating thus our Redeemer, the Priest then touches the ears with his spittle, saying : ” Be ye opened ! ‘ : He does the same to the nostrils, and says : ” Breathe ye in the sweetness of fragrance ! ” The Neophyte is next anointed, on the breast and between the shoulders, with the Oil of Catechumens : but, as this ceremony expresses his having to fight the spiritual combat, the Priest first receives from him the promise to renounce Satan, with his works and pomps.
These rites are performed first over the men, and then over the women. The children of Christian parents are also admitted to take their place among the Catechumens. If any of these latter be labouring under any sickness, and have notwithstanding come to the Church in order to receive, to-night, the grace of Regeneration, — a Priest says over them a prayer, in which he fervently begs of God to heal them, and confound the malice of Satan.
These ceremonies, which are called the Catechisation, occupy a considerable portion of time, on account of the great number of the aspirants to Baptism. It is for this reason, that the Bishop came to the Church at the hour of None (three o’clock in the afternoon), and that the great Vigil began so early. Whilst these rites are being administered to the Catechumens, the rest of the Faithful are listening to appropriate passages from the Scripture, which are being read from the Ambo, and which are the complement of the Lenten Instructions.
These Lessons are twelve in number : but in the venerable Basilica, where we are now supposing ourselves to be, we may say they are twenty-four, since each of the Twelve is read in Latin first, and then in Greek. In order to fix the attention, and excite the devotion of her children to what she reads to them, the Church, after each Lesson, recites a Prayer, which sums up the doctrine expressed in the preceding Prophecy. To some of them is added an appropriate Canticle from the Old Testament, and it is sung, by the whole assembly, to the well known melody of the Tract. The aspirants to Baptism, as soon as they have received the ceremonies of Catechisation, are allowed to enter the Church, where, in the place assigned to them, they listen to the Lessons, and join in the Prayers : — how could they better continue their preparation for the great Sacrament ? And yet, there is an aspect of mournfulness about this portion of the Service, which tells us that the longed-for hour is not yet come. Frequent genuflections, and the sombre coloured Vestments, strongly contrast with the beautiful flame of the Paschal Torch, which sheds its silent beams of light upon the Faithful. Their hearts are still throbbing with the emotions excited within them by the Exsaltet : they are impatient to see their Jesus’ Resurrection fulfilled in the Baptism of the Catechumens.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)