Holy Saturday: Liturgical Time in Pastoral Ministry

by Rev. Anthony L. Cecil, Jr.

“Offer it up!”

While an annoyance to some ears, the idea of this phrase has deep roots in the Catholic tradition. We are taught to identify ourselves as people of the Paschal Mystery; that is, that everything about our lives hinges on the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

In a way, we’ve got a good handle on this. We are able to find comfort in the Cross—in the fact that God, at the very least through the human nature of Jesus, suffered, too. Jesus is portrayed in our art as one who has been wounded and still bears those wounds. And so, if anything, ‘offering it up’ can help the whole experience be a little less lonely.

We have the resurrection part covered, as well. The funeral liturgy is filled with images of hope to be found in the reality of the resurrection. This event forms the highest of our liturgical feasts. It is the resurrection that the suffering Christian looks to as a source of confidence that things will get better.

And yet, something’s missing.

When I was ordained, I thought I knew quite a bit about suffering, and as a by-product, grief. And then, I had to enter fully into what I thought I knew. Shortly after my ordination, my father died, and in that experience, I realized that I didn’t really know that much at all. What I knew was how to introduce someone to the beginning of grief, not how to help someone—much less help myself—do the actual work of grieving.

For a time, there was difficulty figuring out where this fit with my faith. The typical ‘offer it up’ and standard look toward the crucifix on my wall wasn’t working. I had this Good Friday moment, finding out that my father had just died—and yet, I wasn’t at all ready to hear, or maybe even accept, the message of hope and resurrection. I realized these were the only things I was familiar with: the pain of Good Friday, and the message of Easter Sunday.

What was missing? I believe it was Holy Saturday.

Part of the work of liturgical reform in the early part of the last century was the restoration of the Easter Vigil as a true vigil, celebrated at night instead of in the morning, as the practice had been for a little over five centuries. In doing so, the reformers would thereby also restore the spirit of Holy Saturday: a day that is more somber, not a rushed experience of an Easter come too soon. Unfortunately, this part of the vision hasn’t yet been accomplished. In our parishes and homes, we spend the day in preparation for the evening and following day’s celebrations. Part of it, of course, is necessary, but the spirit of the day seems to be lost.

It is recognizing this spirit of Holy Saturday that can be a gift to our pastoral ministry. It is a day that at its core is one of sorrow. It is a day where we are waiting in sorrow at the Lord’s tomb. So often, we tell ourselves or we hear that experiencing sorrow is not acceptable; that we must only have hope, especially if we claim to be a person of faith. We tell ourselves to get over moments of sorrow instead of pausing to work through them. We attempt to ‘help’ others by taking them out of the darkness of their Good Friday experience directly into the jarring light of Easter Sunday.

Holy Saturday, though, is not such a sprint. It is the Lord lying dead in the tomb. It is the Upper Room filled with hidden away apostles who are scared out of their minds. It is the Blessed Mother in inconsolable tears. It is the Lord’s descent into hell not only to lift up those who had fallen because of Adam’s sin, but to show us that there is no depth of suffering that he has not himself faced.

Holy Saturday gives us the message to pause. It tells those in pastoral ministry that the worst thing they can do is rush the process. More often than not, we’ve encountered people who have already been through a Good Friday experience; we’re meeting them on their Holy Saturday. For them, or for us, to heal—we must sit with the pain. We must wait at, or even in, the Lord’s tomb. We must lock ourselves in the Upper Room and allow ourselves to be scared. We must give ourselves permission to weep as the Blessed Mother surely wept.

Of course, we cannot allow ourselves or others to stay there forever. Yet, if the Lord laid dead in the tomb for three days, then we, too, must rest in and embrace the darkness of the tomb before the stone can be rolled away. It is only when we have done so that, like the apostles, we can be so delightfully in awe of the glory of that stone’s removal, and the flooding in of the Light of Christ.

Father Tony Cecil was ordained in May 2019. He is now associate pastor of Epiphany and St. Martin de Porres parishes in Louisville, Kentucky.

2 comments

  1. This Evangelical Catholic (Lutheran) presbyter resonates with your sentiment as well as your frustration. I was ordained in 1995 (after 10 years as a Deacon) and found my parish to be totally unaware of the Easter Vigil, even though it is in our Altar Book and Agenda of services. I “introduced” the Vigil with a full liturgy. The 3 worshippers who attended were in awe at the symbolism and beauty of the Liturgy. I repeated the introduction in my next parish as well, with a slightly better reception. Sadly, my tenure did not create a piety, and in retirement the Vigil was moved to 0800 on Easter morning. Sigh.

    I particularly appreciate your approach to waiting, and not rushing things. In retirement, and now in the new territory of COVID-19, I will watch the Vigil online at a Roman parish…..

  2. While agreeing with the feeling of emptiness on this non-day, there are still things to be done. I’m thinking of the preparatory rites with our Elect. This year will have been a truly empty day in that respect, but normally Holy Saturday morning is a time with them of quietly joyful anticipation of the celebration of new life in Christ (though the Elect themselves will often feel a little scary), rather like the quietly joyful expectation of the season of Advent before celebrating the incarnation.

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