Since Lent, a time of self-examination comes to an end, many Christians observe Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. “It’s typically a day for quiet reflection and preparation for the celebration of the resurrection,” says professor and Jesuit priest Bruce Morrill, Ph.D., Edward A. Malloy Chair of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. “Some faiths, such as Roman Catholic and Orthodox, hold evening services, which are the most important of the church year.”
Overhead the centuries in various regions of Christianity throughout the world, different names for Holy Saturday have evolved. For example, the Orthodox Churches call it “Great and Holy Saturday,” depicting Jesus’s descent into Hell to release the captives there, starting with Adam and Eve. This is often referred to as the “Harrowing of Hell.”
How do people commemorate Holy Saturday?
Throughout the day, families prepare for Easter day celebrations. For example, families with a Polish heritage fill a basket containing eggs, ham, bread, sweetbreads, horseradish, and lamb cakes or butter lambs. They’re brought to church to be blessed on Holy Saturday. On the island of Corfu in Greece, people toss clay pots out of windows. In some parts of Latin America, an effigy of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, is burned.
Not eating meat and fasting (eating only one meal during the day) are optional but encouraged on Holy Saturday for some faith traditions. These devotions are an act of penitence to raise awareness of Jesus’s self-sacrifice and love, says Morrill.
During the evening, some faiths hold a vigil service an hour after sundown. It’s a nocturnal watch that retains ancient roots in expectation and waiting for the resurrection. Some Orthodox traditions have celebrants exit the church, then circle it three times before re-entering. In the Roman Catholic faith, the vigil begins with an outdoor fire, lighting up the night to disperse the darkness. The fire is used to light a very large candle, a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world. The faithful then light tapers of their own from this candle.
Through the Roman Catholic service, Bible passages are read, including from the Books of Genesis, Exodus, and an account of the resurrection from the Books of Matthew, Mark or Luke. People who have prepared to become part of the church are baptized and partake in communion for the first time. The practice recalls the adult conversions that occurred in the 4th-century church as Christianity was beginning to spread, says Morrill. People who have already been baptized renew their vows as well.
Some Protestant faith traditions also hold large baptism services on Holy Saturday. While most don’t hold a night vigil, they may meet for sunrise services at dawn on Easter. The idea parallels the notion of vigil-keeping and waiting for the light to dispel the darkness, says Morrill.