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Holy Saturday

The first ser­vice belong­ing to Holy Sat­ur­day—called in the Church the Blessed Sab­bath—is the Ves­pers of Good Fri­day. It is usu­al­ly cel­e­brat­ed in the mid-after­noon to com­mem­o­rate the bur­ial of Jesus.

Before the ser­vice begins, a “tomb” is erect­ed in the mid­dle of the church build­ing and is dec­o­rat­ed with flow­ers. Also a spe­cial icon which is paint­ed on cloth (in Greek, epi­taphios; in Slavon­ic, plaschan­it­sa) depict­ing the dead Sav­iour is placed on the altar table. In Eng­lish this icon is often called the wind­ing-sheet.

Ves­pers begin as usu­al with hymns about the suf­fer­ing and death of Christ. After the entrance with the Gospel Book and the singing of Glad­some Light, selec­tions from Exo­dus, Job, and Isa­iah 52 are read. An epis­tle read­ing from First Corinthi­ans (1:18–31) is added, and the Gospel is read once more with selec­tions from each of the four accounts of Christ’s cru­ci­fix­ion and bur­ial. The prokeime­na and alleluia vers­es are psalm lines, heard often already in the Good Fri­day ser­vices, prophet­ic in their meaning:

They divid­ed my gar­ments among them and for my rai­ment they cast lots (Psalm 22:18).

My God, my God, why hast Thou for­sak­en me (Ps 22:1).

Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep (Ps 88:6).

After more hymns glo­ri­fy­ing the death of Christ, while the choir sings the dis­missal song of St Sime­on, the priest vests ful­ly in his dark-col­ored robes and incens­es the wind­ing-sheet which still lies upon the altar table. Then, after the Our Father, while the peo­ple sing the tropar­i­on of the day, the priest cir­cles the altar table with the wind­ing-sheet car­ried above his head and places it into the tomb for ven­er­a­tion by the faithful.

The noble Joseph, when he had tak­en down Thy most pure body from the Tree, wrapped it in fine linen and anoint­ed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb (Tropar­i­on of Holy Saturday).

The Matins of Holy Sat­ur­day are usu­al­ly cel­e­brat­ed on Fri­day night. They begin in the nor­mal way with the singing of God is the Lord, the tropar­i­on The Noble Joseph, and the fol­low­ing troparia:

When Thou didst descend to death O Life Immor­tal, Thou didst slay hell with the splen­dor of Thy God­head! And when from the depths Thou didst raise the dead, all the pow­ers of heav­en cried out: O Giv­er of Life! Christ our God! Glo­ry to Thee!

The angel stand­ing by the grave cried out to the women: Myrrh is prop­er for the dead, but Christ has shown him­self a stranger to corruption.

In place of the reg­u­lar psalm read­ing the entire Psalm 119 is read with a verse prais­ing the dead Sav­iour chant­ed between each of its lines. This par­tic­u­lar psalm is the ver­bal icon of Jesus, the right­eous man whose life is in the hands of God and who, there­fore, can­not remain dead. The Prais­es, as the vers­es are called, glo­ri­fy God as “the Res­ur­rec­tion and the Life,” and mar­vel at his hum­ble con­de­scen­sion into death.

There is in the per­son of Jesus Christ the per­fect uni­fi­ca­tion of the per­fect love of man toward God and the per­fect love of God toward man. It is this divine human love which is con­tem­plat­ed and praised over the tomb of the Sav­ior. As the read­ing pro­gress­es the Prais­es become short­er, and grad­u­al­ly more con­cen­trat­ed on the final vic­to­ry of the Lord, thus com­ing to their prop­er conclusion:

I long for Thy sal­va­tion, O Lord, Thy law is my delight (Ps 119:174).

The mind is affright­ed at Thy dread and strange burial.

Let me live, that I may praise Thee, and let Thy ordi­nances help me (119:175).

The women with spices came ear­ly at dawn to anoint Thee.

I have gone astray like a lost sheep, seek Thy ser­vant, for I do not for­get Thy com­mand­ments (119:176).

By Thy res­ur­rec­tion grant peace to the Church and sal­va­tion to Thy people!

After the final glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the Trin­i­ty, the church build­ing is light­ed and the first announce­ment of the women com­ing to the tomb resounds through the con­gre­ga­tion as the cel­e­brant cens­es the entire church. Here for the first time comes the clear procla­ma­tion of the good news of sal­va­tion in Christ’s resurrection.

The canon song of Matins con­tin­ues to praise Christ’s vic­to­ry over death by his own death, and uses each of the Old Tes­ta­men­tal can­ti­cles as a pre­fig­u­ra­tive image of man’s final sal­va­tion through Jesus. Here for the first time there emerges the indi­ca­tion that this Sab­bath this par­tic­u­lar Sat­ur­day on which Christ lay dead—is tru­ly the most blessed sev­enth day that ever exist­ed. This is the day when Christ rests from his work of recre­at­ing the world. This is the day when the Word of God “through whom all things were made” (Jn 1:3) rests as a dead man in the grave, sav­ing the world of his own cre­ation and open­ing the graves:

This is the most blessed Sab­bath on which Christ sleeps, but to rise again on the third day (Kon­takion and Oikos).

Again, the canon ends on the final note of the vic­to­ry of Christ.

Lament not for me, Moth­er, behold­ing me in the grave, the son whom you have born in seed­less con­cep­tion, for I will arise and be glo­ri­fied, and will exalt with glo­ry, unceas­ing­ly as God, all those who with faith and love glo­ri­fy you (Ninth Ode of the Canon).

As more vers­es of praise are sung, the cel­e­brant again vests ful­ly in his somber vest­ments and, as the great dox­ol­o­gy is chant­ed, he once more cens­es the tomb of the Sav­ior. Then, while the con­gre­ga­tion with light­ed can­dles con­tin­u­al­ly repeats the song of the Thrice Holy, the faithful—led by their pas­tor car­ry­ing the Gospel Book with the wind­ing-sheet of Christ held over his head—go in pro­ces­sion around the out­side of the church build­ing. This pro­ces­sion bears wit­ness to the total vic­to­ry of Christ over the pow­ers of dark­ness and death. The whole uni­verse is cleansed, redeemed and re stored by the entrance of the Life of the World into death.

As the pro­ces­sion returns to the church build­ing, the troparia are sung once again, and the prophe­cy of Ezekiel about the “dry bones” of Israel is chant­ed with great solemnity:

And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, O my peo­ple. And I will put my spir­it with­in you and you shall live. …(Ezek 37:1–14).

With the vic­to­ri­ous lines of the psalms call­ing God to arise, to lift up his hands, to scat­ter his ene­mies and to let the right­eous rejoice; and with the repeat­ed singing of Alleluia, the let­ter of the Apos­tle Paul to the Corinthi­ans is read: “Christ our paschal lamb has been sac­ri­ficed” (1 Cor 5:6–8). The Gospel about the seal­ing of the tomb is read once more, and the ser­vice is end­ed with inter­ces­sion and benediction.

The Ves­pers and Matins of the Blessed Sab­bath, togeth­er with the Divine Litur­gy which fol­lows, form a mas­ter­piece of the Ortho­dox litur­gi­cal tra­di­tion. These ser­vices are not at all a dra­mat­ic re-enact­ment of the his­tor­i­cal death and bur­ial of Christ. Nei­ther are they a kind of rit­u­al repro­duc­tion of scenes of the Gospel. They are, rather, the deep­est spir­i­tu­al and litur­gi­cal pen­e­tra­tion into the eter­nal mean­ing of the sav­ing events of Christ, viewed and praised already with the full knowl­edge of their divine sig­nif­i­cance and power.

The Church does not pre­tend, as it were, that it does not know what will hap­pen with the cru­ci­fied Jesus. It does not sor­row and mourn over the Lord as if the Church itself were not the very cre­ation which has been pro­duced from his wound­ed sides and from the depths of his tomb. All through the ser­vices the vic­to­ry of Christ is con­tem­plat­ed and the res­ur­rec­tion is pro­claimed. For it is indeed only in the light of the vic­to­ri­ous res­ur­rec­tion that the deep­est divine and eter­nal mean­ing of the events of Christ’s pas­sion and death can be gen­uine­ly grasped, ade­quate­ly appre­ci­at­ed and prop­er­ly glo­ri­fied and praised.

On Holy Sat­ur­day itself, Ves­pers are served with the Divine Litur­gy of St Basil the Great. This ser­vice already belongs to the Passover Sun­day. It begins in the nor­mal way with the evening psalm, the litany, the hymns fol­low­ing the evening Psalm 141 and the entrance with the singing of the ves­per­al hymn, Glad­some Light. The cel­e­brant stands at the tomb in which lies the wind­ing-sheet with the image of the Sav­ior in the sleep of death.

Fol­low­ing the evening entrance which is made with the Book of the Gospels, fif­teen read­ings from the Old Tes­ta­ment scrip­tures are read, all of which relate to God’s work of cre­ation and sal­va­tion which has been summed up and ful­filled in the com­ing of the pre­dict­ed Mes­si­ah. Besides the read­ings in Gen­e­sis about cre­ation, and the passover-exo­dus of the Israelites in the days of Moses in Exo­dus, there are selec­tions from the prophe­cies of Isa­iah, Ezekiel, Jere­mi­ah, Daniel, Zepha­ni­ah, and Jon­ah as well as from Joshua and the Books of Kings, the Can­ti­cles of Moses, and of the Three Youths found in Daniel are chant­ed as well. After the Old Tes­ta­ment read­ings the cel­e­brant intones the nor­mal litur­gi­cal excla­ma­tion for the singing of the Thrice-Holy Hymn, but in its place the bap­tismal verse from Gala­tians is sung: As many as have been bap­tized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia (Gal 3:27). As usu­al in the Divine Litur­gy the epis­tle read­ing fol­lows at this point. It is the nor­mal bap­tismal selec­tion of the Ortho­dox Church (Rom 6:3–11). If we have been unit­ed with him in a death like his we shall cer­tain­ly be unit­ed with him in a res­ur­rec­tion like his” (Rom 6:5).

At this time the roy­al gates are closed, and the cel­e­brants and altar servers change their robes from the dark vest­ments of the pas­sion into the bright vest­ments of Christ’s vic­to­ry over death. At this time all vest­ings of the church appoint­ments are also changed into the col­or sig­ni­fy­ing Christ’s tri­umph over sin, the dev­il and death. This revest­ing takes place while the peo­ple sing the vers­es of Psalm 82: Arise O Lord and judge the earth, for to Thee belong all the nations.

After the solemn chant­i­ng of the psalm vers­es, to which are often added the hymn glo­ri­fy­ing Christ as the New Passover, the Liv­ing Sac­ri­fice who is slain, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the cel­e­brants emerge from the altar to announce over the tomb of Christ the glad tid­ings of his vic­to­ri­ous tri­umph over death and his com­mand to the apos­tles: “Make dis­ci­ples of all nations bap­tiz­ing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spir­it, teach­ing them to observe all that I have com­mand­ed. …” (Mt 28:1.20). This Gospel text is also the read­ing of the bap­tismal cer­e­mo­ny of the Ortho­dox Church.

The Divine Litur­gy then con­tin­ues in the bril­liance of Christ’s destruc­tion of death. The fol­low­ing song replaces the Cheru­bic Hymn of the offertory:

Let all mor­tal flesh keep silent and in fear and trem­bling stand, pon­der­ing noth­ing earth­ly-mind­ed. For the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords comes to be slain, to give him­self as food to the faithful.

Before him go the ranks of angels: all the prin­ci­pal­i­ties and pow­ers, the many-eyed cheru­bim and the six-winged seraphim, cov­er­ing their faces, singing the hymn: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

In place of the Hymn to the Theotokos, the ninth ode of the mati­nal canon is sung once again: “Lament not for me, Moth­er… for I will arise” (see above). The com­mu­nion hymn is the line of the psalm: The Lord awoke as one asleep, and arose sav­ing us (Ps 78:65)

The Divine Litur­gy is ful­filled in the com­mu­nion with him who lies dead in his human body, and yet is enthroned eter­nal­ly with God the Father; the one who, as the Cre­ator and Life of the World, destroys death by his lifeÃ?creating death. His tomb—which still stands in the cen­ter of the church—is shown to be, as the Litur­gy calls it: the foun­tain of our res­ur­rec­tion.

Orig­i­nal­ly this Litur­gy was the East­er bap­tismal litur­gy of Chris­tians. It remains today as the annu­al expe­ri­ence for every Chris­t­ian of his own dying and ris­ing with the Lord.

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will nev­er die again; death no longer has domin­ion over him (Rom 6:8–9).

Christ lies dead, yet he is alive. He is in the tomb, but already he is “tram­pling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestow­ing life.” There is noth­ing more to do now but to live through the evening of the Blessed Sab­bath on which Christ sleeps, await­ing the mid­night hour when the Day of our Lord will begin to dawn upon us, and the night full of light will come when we will pro­claim with the angel: “He is risen, he is not here; see the tomb where they laid him” (Mk 16:6).