Why is Holy Saturday so sacred? What happened on the day between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Discover the meaning, traditions, and importance of Holy Saturday for Christians throughout history and around the world.
What is Holy Saturday?
Holy Saturday is the name assigned to the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Many Christians acknowledge Holy Saturday, the seventh and final day of Holy Week, as the day on which Jesus “rested” from His work of bestowing redemption to mankind. As Jesus died, He called out, “It is finished!” No further atonement was required; sin had been redeemed with Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
When is Holy Saturday in 2023?
This year, Holy Saturday will be on April 8th, the day before Easter Sunday, April 9th.
Names of Holy Saturday
Holy Saturday is also known as the Saturday of Holy Week, Great and Holy Saturday, the Great Sabbath, Black Saturday, Hallelujah Saturday (in Portugal and Brazil), Glorious Saturday (in the Philippines) or Easter Eve, and called "Joyous Saturday" or "the Saturday of Light" among Coptic Christians.
Holy Saturday Traditions
Holy Saturday, also called Easter Vigil, commemorates the final day of Christ’s death, which is traditionally associated with His triumphant descent into hell.
Churches that observe Holy Saturday traditionally do so by commemorating a day of somber meditation as they consider the world of darkness that would exist without the hope and redemption of Christ’s resurrection.
The early church honored the end of Lent with great baptismal ceremonies. However, for many centuries no ceremonies were observed on Holy Saturday in Western churches. This harkened to the suspended status of Christ’s followers in the time between his Crucifixion and Resurrection.
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The Holy Fire on Holy Saturday
The Holy Fire is a miracle that happens every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday. It is commonly regarded to be the oldest witnessed annual miracle in the Christian world, documented continuously since 1106. In many Orthodox countries, the Holy Fire ceremony is televised live.
The observance begins at noon when the Patriarch of Jerusalem or another Orthodox Archbishop reads a particular prayer. The Christians gathered will then chant "Lord, have mercy" until the Holy Fire descends on a lamp of olive oil held by the patriarch while he is alone in the tomb chamber of Jesus Christ. The patriarch will then exit from the tomb chamber and light candles to distribute to the faithful.
The fire is also said to spontaneously light other lamps and candles around the church. Pilgrims say the Holy Fire will not burn human skin in the first 33 minutes after it is ignited. Before entering the Lord's Tomb, the patriarch or presiding archbishop is inspected by Israeli authorities to prove that he does not carry the means to light the fire himself. ~ Excerpt from Orthodoxwiki
Meaning of Holy Saturday
If Christ had never risen, “your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The disciples had dispersed when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50), and they spent the first Holy Saturday hiding for concern of also being arrested (John 20:19). The day between Christ’s crucifixion and His resurrection would have been a moment of despair and confusion as the disciples sought to understand the murder of Jesus and the treachery of Judas.
The only scripture mention of what occurred on Holy Saturday is found in Matthew 27:62-66. After sundown on Friday, the chief priests and Pharisees visited Pontius Pilate. They asked Pilate for a guard for Jesus’ tomb. They recalled Jesus stating that He would rise again in three days (John 2:19-21) and wanted to prevent Christ from rising from the grave. As we know, the Roman guards were inadequate to prevent the resurrection, and the women who returned to the tomb Sunday morning found it empty. The Lord had risen.
In the Orthodox Church, Holy Saturday is also known as the "Blessed Sabbath". Rev. Alexander Schmemann further explains the significance and meaning of Holy Saturday according to Orthodox theology and tradition:
Holy Saturday is the day on which Christ reposed in the tomb. The Church calls this day the Blessed Sabbath.
By using this title the Church links Holy Saturday with the creative act of God. In the initial account of creation as found in the Book of Genesis, God made man in His own image and likeness. To be truly himself, man was to live in constant communion with the source and dynamic power of that image: God. Man fell from God. Now Christ, the Son of God through whom all things were created, has come to restore man to communion with God. He thereby completes creation. All things are again as they should be. His mission is consummated. On the Blessed Sabbath He rests from all His works.
Scriptures and Prayer for Holy Saturday
"And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." ~ 1 Corinthians 15:17
"And Jesus said to them, "Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled." And they all left him and fled." ~ Mark 14:48-50
"The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise.' Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can." So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard." ~ Matthew 27:62-66
"On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." ~ John 20:19-23
Holy Saturday Prayer
On the Sabbath,
He was in the grave.
He had finished his work.
To most people’s eyes,
It looked as if it were all over.
He was dead and buried.
But only as a seed dies when it is planted in the earth,
Not to decay, but to spring to new life.
Teach us to take refuge in you when we are afraid
Teach us that death is not our end