Today is Holy Saturday or Black Saturday. I’ve set a scene in my new medieval novel during the Black Saturday night vigil in Toulouse’s Saint Etienne Cathedral. As an atheist myself, trying to imagine my way into the religious beliefs of my medieval characters is a major challenge. I asked my Catholic friend, Anne, to help me out with my research. She turned up with her missal and talked me through the Easter rituals in a high Catholic church using the Roman Rite in use in the Middle Ages.
Holy Saturday is a day of deepest mourning after the crucifixion of Christ preceded by 40 days of Lent fasting. There is no daytime mass in the church and the alter is bare. On Maundy Thursday, the host – the chalice of wafers representing Christ’s body – is moved from the main altar to a side altar decorated with flowers, representing the garden of Gethsemene. The bells are silenced for three days before Easter. On Good Friday, the priest wraps the host with his cope without touching it and it is removed from the church altogether. No consecrations can take place. The tabernacle where the host is usually kept on the altar is wide open and empty. The tabernacle lantern is put out. There is no presence of Christ in the church.
On Holy Saturday, when darkness has completely fallen, the Easter Vigil takes place. A fire is kindled in a brazier outside the east door, facing Jerusalem. The priest lights the Paschal candle at the brazier and slowly processes up the aisle of the dark church, offering the flame to members of the congregation on either side who light their own candles and then those of their neighbours. Light slowly creeps back into the church and moves up towards the altar. The priest calls out Lumen Christi! three times as he processes. There is a lengthy service with lessons, canticles, blessings, the singing of Gloria in excelsis Deo. The priest has his back to the congregation and there is a cross on the back of his cope, showing his representation of Christ on the cross. He makes the sign of the cross 33 time to signify Christ’s age when he was crucified. When the priest elevates the host – it signifies Christ being lifted up and nailed to the Cross. When he lifts the chalice of wine, it signifies Christ’s blood as he was lanced in the side. The congregation stand for the Gospel of St John: ‘In the beginning was the word… and then the Alleluia is sung and, at last, the bells can ring.
You can watch a recording or a live streamed version of the service using the Roman Rite, which was used in the Middle Ages, online on Youtube, for example,
Thanks to Anne. I could not have described the fabulous theatre of the Easter night ritual without her passion about the Passion. Apologies for any errors, which are all mine.