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:
- 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
- Purgatory, where
righteous people go to be cleansed of the temporal effects of their
- 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]
The harrowing of Hell
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
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. Back in the day, the people would extinguish the
fires they kept burning in their homes, and would re-light it using the
New Fire. Thnk of it! All year long, the fire that would light their
nights, keep them warm, and cook their food was, they knew, from the
Church and a symbol of Christ.
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
Ex˙ltet (or "Praeconium").
Note that during the Ex˙ltet, 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:
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.
(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."
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
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, veiled since Passion Sunday,
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
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
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.
As to foods, a fun cookie to make tonight to eat tomorrow morning are
Resurrection Cookies, a cookie that will help your children get a
"hands-on" Bible lesson. Below is the recipe as taken from the Internet
1 cup whole pecans
1 tsp vinegar, plus some for your children to taste
3 egg whites
pinch salt, plus some for your children to taste
1 cup sugar, plus some for your children to taste
Tools: rolling pin or wooden spoon, plastic baggie with a zipper-lock,
scotch tape, Douay-Rheims Bible
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. (this is important - don't wait until
you are halfway done with the recipe!) Place pecans in the plastic
baggie and let children beat them with a rolling pin or wooden spoon to
break into small pieces. Explain that after Jesus was arrested He was
beaten by the Roman soldiers. Read John 19:1-3: "And they came to him,
and said: Hail, king of the Jews; and they gave him blows."
Let each child smell and taste some vinegar. Put vinegar into mixing
bowl. Explain that when Jesus was thirsty on the cross He was given
vinegar to drink. Read John 19:28-30. "Afterwards, Jesus knowing that
all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be
fulfilled, said: I thirst. Now there was a vessel set there full of
vinegar. And they, putting a sponge full of vinegar and hyssop, put it
to his mouth. Jesus therefore, when he had taken the vinegar, said: It
is consummated. And bowing his head, he gave up the ghost."
Add egg whites to vinegar. Eggs represent life. Explain that Jesus gave
His life to give us life. Read John 10:10-11 "The thief cometh not, but
for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I am come that they may have
life, and may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good
shepherd giveth his life for his sheep."
Sprinkle a little salt into each child's hand. Let them taste it as you
put the tsp. salt into the bowl and explain that this represents the
salty tears shed by Jesus' followers, and the bitterness of our own
sin. Read Luke 23:27 "And there followed him a great multitude of
people, and of women, who bewailed and lamented him."
Beat with a mixer on high speed for 12 to 15 minutes until stiff peaks
are formed. Explain that the color white represents the purity in God's
eyes of those whose sins have been cleansed by Jesus. Read Isaias 1:18,
" And then come, and accuse me, saith the Lord: if your sins be as
scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow: and if they be red as
crimson, they shall be white as wool."
So far the ingredients are not very appetizing. Add the sugar to the
egg whites, and give some for your children to taste. Explain that the
sweetest part of the story is that Jesus died because He loves us He
wants us to know and belong to Him. Read Psalm 33:9 (34:8 in Bibles
with Masoretic numbering) and John 3:16. "O taste, and see that
the Lord is sweet: blessed is the man that hopeth in him... ...For God
so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever
believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting."
Then read John 3:1-3, "And there was a man of the Pharisees, named
Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night, and
said to him: Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God; for
no man can do these signs which thou dost, unless God be with him."
Fold in broken nuts. Drop by teaspoons onto wax paper covered cookie
sheet (do not use a baking stone!). Explain that each mound represents
the rocky tomb where Jesus' body was laid.
Read Mathew 27:57-60 "And when it was evening, there came a certain
rich man of Arimathea, named Joseph, who also himself was a disciple of
Jesus. He went to Pilate, and asked the body of Jesus. Then Pilate
commanded that the body should be delivered. And Joseph taking the
body, wrapped it up in a clean linen cloth. And laid it in his own new
monument, which he had hewed out in a rock. And he rolled a great stone
to the door of the monument, and went his way."
Put the cookie sheet in the oven, close the door and turn the oven OFF.
Give each child a piece of tape and seal the oven door.Explain that
Jesus' tomb was sealed.
Read Matthew 27:65-66 "Pilate saith to them: You have a guard; go,
guard it as you know. And they departing, made the sepulchre sure,
sealing the stone, and setting guards."
GO TO BED! Explain that they may feel sad to leave the cookies in the
oven overnight. Jesus' followers were in despair when the tomb was
Read John 16:20-22 "Amen, amen I say to you, that you shall lament and
weep, but the world shall rejoice; and you shall be made sorrowful, but
your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labour,
hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she hath brought forth
the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is
born into the world. So also you now indeed have sorrow; but I will see
you again, and your heart shall rejoice; and your joy no man shall take
On Easter morning, open the oven and give everyone a cookie. Notice the
cracked surface and take a bite. The cookies are hollow! On the first
Easter Jesus' followers were amazed to find the tomb open and empty.
Read Matthew 28:1-9 "And in the end of the sabbath, when it began to
dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen and the
other Mary, to see the sepulchre. And behold there was a great
earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and coming,
rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. And his countenance was as
lightning, and his raiment as snow. And for fear of him, the guards
were struck with terror, and became as dead men. And the angel
answering, said to the women: Fear not you; for I know that you seek
Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen, as he said.
Come, and see the place where the Lord was laid. And going quickly,
tell ye his disciples that he is risen: and behold he will go before
you into Galilee; there you shall see him. Lo, I have foretold it to
you. And they went out quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great
joy, running to tell his disciples. And behold Jesus met them, saying:
All hail. But they came up and took hold of his feet, and adored him."
RESURREXIT! HE HAS RISEN!
ancient homily for Holy Saturday
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
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
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
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.