Holy Saturday is the day we commemorate Jesus in the tomb. He was crucified and buried on Good Friday, and Christians all over the world commemorate in slience the awaiting of Easter Sunday and the Resurrection of our Lord, victorious over death!
Traditionally, there is no Mass on this day. The morning starts with Tenebrae. Tenebrae is part of the Triduum, celebrated on the three days prior to Easter Sunday (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday) and confessions can be scheduled throughout the day, and while there is no Mass, there can be a celebration of Holy Communion with pre-consecrated hosts from Holy Thursday. The word tenebrae comes from the Latin meaning of "darkness" or "shadows" - as each day of the Triduum, the lights (candles) in the church are gradually extinguished up to the Tenebrae of Holy Saturday, when ALL lights/candles are put out - the church is left in darkness and silence as we wait.
So what does happen on Holy Saturday? One of the most meaning-packed liturgies of the entire year! Easter Vigil! The vigil traditionally starts at 10 PM local time, and it takes about 2 hours to complete - then - precisely at midnight begins the First Mass of Easter!
The first vigil I ever attended was in the traditional Latin, or extraordinary rite. To be honest, that first time I was not prepared for what was in store for me. First, being a relatively new convert to the Catholic Faith, I did not know all the history and meanings behind all the readings of the vigil. Second, not being really prepared, I got extremely tired before the First Mass of Easter began - but when it did, I was still amazed! The next time I went, I rested up, was a bit more aware of what was going on and was able to follow the readings much more and I was utterly awed by the experience! Then, when the bells began ringing and the statues were unveiled - the experience of the Resurrection explodes throughout the church. The long awaited Easter is HERE and Lent is over!
In the years after Vatican II the Easter Vigil in the ordinary rite is traditionally celebrated approximately one hour after sunset. This is, in part, aligned with the Jewish celebration of Shabbat (Sabbath) as the traditional Jewish day begins at sunset and ends sunset the following day - hence the need to have Jesus buried quickly on Friday because once Shabbat begins, no work is to be performed. Personally, though similarly done (it is much shorter in the Novus Ordo), from our European perspective of the day starting at midnight, for this writer, at least, having it "early" minimizes some of the mystique of bringing in Easter Sunday ON Sunday in the first moments of Easter. If you have not experienced the Easter Vigil in the Traditional Latin (extraordinary) Rite - I highly recommend it!
What to do to prepare for Easter Vigil
1) Be rested! The celebration is long, even in the Novus Ordo, as there is a LOT packed into the readings.
2) Be ready for what is being read! The Vigil begins in the Old Testament, setting the foundation for and reminding us of the very REASON for Easter!
3) Be prepared to be AWED by the experience - in the fullest sense of the word! In fact, our family tries to only use the word "awe" or "awesome" in matters that relate to God - for God truly is the only One worthy of our awe.
How the Vigil Begins
It starts outside. During the three days of Tenebrae the lights/candles of the church are gradually extinguished so that by Holy Saturday, the inside of the church is completely darkened. Outside the church The Paschal Candle is blessed and prepared - in one significant stage, five "nails" (pins amde from incense) are inserted into the cross on the candle, symbolizing the five wounds crucifixion, the burial incense - and a reminder - WE put those nails in. Next, a "new fire" is lit - traditionally from striking flint into kindling, and building a fire from there. In modern days, some will use a lighter - which technically is still valid if it uses flint to strike the flame (electronic striking lighters, technically, do not suffice here). Prayers are read, hymns are sung and the Paschal Candle is lit from the new fire. The tradition of the "new fire" used to be a daily practice in the ancient church, eventually was done on each Saturday, throughout the year, and in the 11th century the ceremony was restricted to the Easter Vigil. Then, the congregation, each holding a candle of their own, lights their candle starting from the Paschal Candle. That One Light brings light to all. Next comes the procession into the church.
The Procession Into the Church
The priest leads the way in, pausing first at the door and chanting "Lumen Christi!" (the Light of Christ), then the doors open and he takes a few steps in, pauses and chants again, in slightly higher tone, "Lumen Christi!" This repeats several times as the congregation proceeds in behind him. Keeping in mind, the church is wholly darkened and is only being lit by the candles processing in - it is truly symbolic of the Light of Christ entering into the sanctuary - and back into the world.
The readings begin with the creation of the world, through the story of the fall of mankind into sin, to the promise of Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah. If you are paying attention and meditating on these words, you may experience the Vigil in the deeper sense for which it was designed - to remind us of who we are, from where we came. and WHY we went through the penance of Lent, Passion Week, and are brought to this point - the Vigil of Easter - where we are encouraged to think upon the women approaching the Empty Tomb.
The Joy of Easter!
The preparation and readings of the Vigil. which again, take approximately 2 hours to go through and is why we start at 10 PM, perfect timing for the First Mass of Easter - which begins promptly at midnight. Bells ring loudly (they have been silenced since Holy Thursday, first day of the Triduum) and the purple veils over the statues (and other artwork) are removed - HE IS RISEN! And we celebrate with the sung High Mass!
The timing in most celebrations of the ordinary (Novus Ordo) rite are a bit different - but the meanings are still there. Again, I have been to both - but I prefer the whole build-up and timing of the First Mass of Easter beginning at midnight - in the first moments of Easter Sunday as celebrated according to the extraordinary rite (and some ordinary rite parishes may still adhere to the more traditional ritual).