Holy Saturday - Extraordinary Form (Tridentine)

Christ is in His tomb. Rather, His Body is in the tomb, but when His Soul left His Body, He descended into Hell to “free the captives.” “Hell” here refers to the place of the dead in general (“Sheol” in the Hebrew, or “Hades” in the Greek), not to the place of torment with which the word “Hell” is most usually associated with today. The world “Hell” in the loosest, earliest sense includes:Painting of the harrowing of Hell, by Hans Mielich

  • the Limbo of the Fathers, the place for those who were righteous by charity and faith in the coming Messias and who died before His Coming
  • the Limbo of Infants, where, possibly, those who are sent who die without personal guilt but without Baptism after the time of Christ, or who died without charity and faith in the coming Messias before the time of Christ. This would be a place of beautiful, natural happiness, no punishment, and no sensible suffering.
  • Purgatory, where righteous people go to be cleansed of the temporal effects of their sins
  • Gehenna, the “Hell of the Lost,” the eternal place of punishment for the damned, the place we usually refer to as simply “Hell” today

It was to the Limbo of the Fathers that Christ descended, a place of the dead that was emptied through His Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, and no longer exists. By this “Harrowing of Hell,” as His Descent is sometimes called, the doors to Heaven were swung open so that those who die in a state of grace may enter in, alleluia! Adam, Eve, Noe, Abraham, Moses, the good thief on the cross – all the righteous were illuminated by the Presence of Christ in the place of death, making Sheol itself a paradise. They remained there with Him until His Bodily Resurrection when the the “bars of Hell” were broken down and they were later able to enter into Heaven itself with His glorious Ascension.

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.” [Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: PG 43, 440A, 452C; LH, Holy Saturday, OR]

Because of this great silence, today there will be no Mass (until the Vigil Mass tonight, which technically is Easter); instead, there is a solemn service. Today is traditionally a day of abstinence in addition to being a day of fasting, until the Vigil Mass, when the Lenten Fast ends. Though this fasting requirement was abolished in the new Code of Canon Law, traditional Catholics follow the traditional practice. In some churches today, priests will bless Easter baskets containing the foods eaten tomorrow (in other places, the baskets will be blessed after the liturgy tomorrow). Baskets bearing Easter bread, Easter eggs, meats, butter, horseradish, and salt are brought to church, blessed, and taken home to await the great feast tomorrow (see the Easter Day page for more information).

As said, in the evening—very late in the evening – there will be a true Mass, the Vigil Mass that begins Easter – a most joyous Mass during which Catechumens are baptized into the Church (neither the Creed nor Offertory are said) and the alleluia returns. This is a Mass that must be experienced! It is a very long service, but so beautiful, and when it is finished, Easter is here and the somberness that began on Good Friday is over; candles may be relit at home, music can be restored to the house, etc. The Vigil Mass starts in darkness; the lights of the church are extinguished. Then comes the Blessing of the New Fire and Blessing of the Paschal Candle: outdoors, if possible, the priest, wearing an amice, alb, stole and purple cope, blesses the new fire with Holy Water and prayer. This new fire is a symbol of Christ Who enlightens us.

The acolyte will then fill the thurible with some of the coals from the fire, and the priest will fill it with incense and incense the new fire. The priest then carves into the wax of the Paschal candle the following: a Cross, the Alpha and Omega signs, and the year. 5 grains of incense symbolizing the 5 wounds of Christ are fixed into the candle, which is lit from the new fire. These incisions in the wax will follow the pattern below (see the page on Easter Sunday for more information on the Paschal candle itself):

When we re-enter the church, we all light our own candles from the Paschal Candle, which is then put in its place in the sanctuary, incensed, and will remain in the church until the Feast of the Ascension. At this point, the deacon will sing the joyous song of praise which is the Proclamation of Easter—the Exúltet (or “Praeconium”).

Note that during the Exúltet, you will hear the words “felix culpa,” which mean “happy fault.” This refers to the line before it, “O truly needful sin of Adam, which was blotted out by the death of Christ.” It means that without Adam’s sin, we would’ve not been sent the Redeemer. Adam and Eve would’ve lived in an earthly paradise without death—but also without Heaven and without being able to share in the Divine life on earth. You will also hear repeated the words “This is the night…” Note, too, the beautiful praise of bees:

Therefore, on this sacred night, receive, holy Father, the flame of this evening sacrifice, which holy Church presents to Thee by the hands of Thy ministers in the solemn offering of this Candle of wax, the work of bees. Now we know the excellence of this pillar, which the glowing fire enkindles to the glory of God. Which, although divied into parts, suffers no loss from its light being borrowed. For it is nourished by the melting wax, which the mother bee produced for the substance of this precious lamp.

After four (very, very) long readings, called the Lessons, which are a basic review of salvation History, any catechumens are baptized, and all the previously baptized renew their Baptismal promises. It begins when we recite the Litany of the Saints, but stop halfway through, after the prayer to “All ye holy Virgins and Widows, All ye holy Saints of God” (you can download this Litany, in Microsoft Word .doc format, in English or in Latin).

At this point, the Baptismal waters are blessed, with the Easter Candle being dipped into it three times, and the priest blowing his breath over it three times in the shape of the Cross. This breathing over the waters recalls the Spirit over the waters at Creation, and the Spirit (wind, breath, “ruach”) causing the waters of Noe’s flood to subside, and how the Spirit was manifest as a dove over the waters of the Jordan at Christ’s Baptism.

Then follow the Baptism of the Catechumens and the renewal of the baptismal promises of the already-baptized. We renew those promises by answering the questions (as a group) posed in the Renunciation of Satan and in the Profession of Faith in the Baptismal Rite. The Pater is recited, followed by a prayer that God keeps us in Christ. This is followed by a sprinkling of the congregation with the baptismal waters, and then finishing the Litany of All Saints.

After this, the end of Lent is signalled: the Gloria and alleluia return—and when they do, the statues are unveiled, the church lit up, the bells, said to have flown to Rome on Maundy Thursday, now have begun to finish their flight home and peal wildly… It is a truly glorious moment!

The building of great fires, the lighting of candles, and other means of illumination are the greatest symbol of Christ after the Vigil. If possible, relight the candles you have burning before icons on your family altar with fire from the New Fire, and keep the flame alive all year until next Good Friday. If you can’t make it to the Vigil Mass, praying around bonfires is the next best thing. This poem by the poet Prudentius (b. 348) sums up the Christian attitude toward light as a symbol of Christ on this night and on Easter Sunday:

Inventor rutilis

Eternal God, O Lord of Light,
Who hast created day and night:
The sun has set, and shadows deep
Now over land and waters creep;
But darkness must not reign today:
Grant us the light of Christ, we pray.


In some places, a ceremony is made of having a mock funeral for Lent on this day after the Vigil. In Poland, for example, a real or wooden herring is “mourned” and buried in a “good riddance!” gesture that acknowledges the end of Lent and the return of feasting! 1 In other places, Judas is burned in effigy—often life-sized—in these Easter fires or is blown up by pyrotechnics, as in some parts of Mexico! On a purely natural level (and though this isn’t a “Catholic custom” per se), it might be a reassuring practice for families to write down their cares, problems, bad memories, past hurts, and such, and toss them into the flames, too.

Also, parishes and families who’ve literally “buried the alleluia” on Septuagesima Sunday now dig it up again.

From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps 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. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, 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 the captives Adam and Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, o sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, Whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on My Face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise. Let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.


1 All over Spain, a similar custom prevails—but on Ash Wednesday. The “entierro de la sardina”—“burial of the sardine”—takes place as a mock funeral for the end of Carnival. A sardine, either a real one, a small mock one, or a large effigy, is burned, buried, or thrown into the river after a funeral procession consisting of black-clad “mourners” who dramatically “cry” and keen all the way. Sadly, these days, this custom, like most Carnival customs, is marked by debauchery