By Charles Hoffacker
The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church includes a section entitled “Proper Liturgies for Special Days.” Six such liturgies are featured, each for a different day and each with its own unique features and tone. Each service is appropriate only on the day to which it is assigned. The first is for Ash Wednesday, the opening day of Lent. The last is the Great Vigil of Easter, which starts at a time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning.
The remaining proper liturgies are for four of the days of Holy Week:the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday), Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Among all six proper liturgies, the one most likely to be omitted is Holy Saturday, the briefest of them all. Why is this so?
Worship planners may assume that few people would attend this service, placed as it is between Good Friday and the Easter Vigil/Easter Day celebration. However, if the Holy Saturday liturgy is offered, people will attend. Some of them will be there already.
In most cases, a significant number of people appear in the church on Holy Saturday to make arrangements for the Easter celebration. They include altar guild members, musicians, choristers, flower guild members, sextons, and liturgical ministers. A Holy Saturday service can be arranged for these workers and others at a convenient time in the morning or at midday. Many of these workers will have contributed to services earlier in the week. The Holy Saturday liturgy can be for them in a particular way what it is for anyone who travels from the Sunday of the Passion through the Sunday of the Resurrection, namely, a quiet, prayerful pause, an empty moment, a graveside service for Jesus who has died.
The title “Holy Saturday” prevents confusing this liturgy with the Great Vigil of Easter, which often begins on Saturday night. The Holy Saturday liturgy is a service of the Word. With a few exceptions, the ancient Western liturgical books have no general provisions for Holy Saturday other than the Daily Office. Within Anglicanism, according to Marion Hatchett, “the Saturday before Easter retained the nature of a period of preparation for the celebration of Easter” and “the almost uniquely Anglican provision for a liturgy of the word” on this Saturday finds a place in the 1979 prayer book.
The Holy Saturday liturgy in the prayer book begins with a rubric noting that there is no celebration of the Eucharist on this day. In the Episcopal Church Good Friday and Holy Saturday are the only aliturgical days, occasions when the Eucharist is not celebrated. While the BCP permits the administration of Holy Communion from the reserved Sacrament during the Good Friday liturgy, no such provision exists for Holy Saturday. One must simply wait for the Easter liturgy. This recalls a theme in the Holy Saturday Collect of the Day: we pray that “we may await with [Jesus] the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life.”
The church is stripped as part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. It remains in this stark condition on Holy Saturday, although in some places the altar is covered with a funeral pall. The wooden cross from the Good Friday liturgy is still in place. The color for vestments is Passiontide red, which connects this liturgy with the rest of Holy Week. Incense, the processional cross, and torches are not used.
The deacon (or server) and the celebrant enter the church in silence, reverence the altar, and kneel at their accustomed places for silent prayer. The celebrant says the Salutation or simply “let us pray,” followed by the Collect of the Day.
The readings and psalms listed in the prayer book have been succeeded by those in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Thus the Old Testament Reading is now Job 14:2-14 or Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24. It is appropriately followed by Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16. The Epistle is invariably 1 Peter 4:1-8. It can be followed by Psalm 130, which appears in the BCP lectionary, although not in the RCL. An anthem from the BCP Good Friday liturgy may precede the Gospel.
The Gospel is Matthew 27:57-66 or John 19:38-42. The Gospel may be announced as “The Conclusion of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (John).” The customary responses before and after the Gospel are omitted.
Although a homily is optional, one should be included under most circumstances. A principal theme can be that the Church has come to what Leonel L. Mitchell calls “an empty day, the day when Christ rested in the tomb and all creation awaited the resurrection.”
Next comes a distinctive feature of the Holy Saturday liturgy. In place of the Prayers of the People, the anthem “In the midst of life” (BCP 484 or 492) from the Burial of the Dead is sung or said. The Rite I and Rite II versions of this anthem differ in their arrangement. Only the Rite II version features a form of the Trisagion used as a refrain. Thus on Holy Saturday we are reminded not only of the mortality that we share with Jesus, but that our deliverance from eternal death depends on his life given for us and our acceptance of that gift.
The Lord’s Prayer and the Grace conclude the service. The ministers leave in silence, then the people leave in silence.
In The Priest’s Handbook, Dennis Michno proposes that with some additions, the Holy Saturday liturgy can be offered on Good Friday evening if the Good Friday liturgy has already taken place. He entitles this alternative “The Commemoration of the Burial of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” But the more usual location for this rite is in the morning or at noon on Saturday with the emphasis not on the act of burying Jesus, but on the resting of his body on the Sabbath day. That resting leads to resurrection, for Jesus and for us.
The Holy Saturday liturgy is a brief and humble service that belongs to the worship of the Episcopal Church. It can enrich the experience of any congregation that decides to offer it.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals.