31 March [Holy Saturday, Vigil Mass]
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’
Jesus was silent before Pilate, and now he is silent in death. History doesn’t record silence, only disturbance. Today, of all days, the Christian heart feels the darkness of the world with its loss of meaning, and allows itself to look at the darkness and experience the silence. George Steiner, among others, remarked that our world today is a kind of prolonged Holy Saturday: the age between Friday and Sunday, between defeat and hope.
When Jesus was crucified, only the women came near. The apostles had fled into hiding. If he were being enthroned they would all be there, jockeying for position. But the women came to his tomb. He had nothing to give them, but they came near. Only the heart comes near.
There is no Eucharist on Holy Saturday. The altars are stripped bare, tabernacles lie open and empty – an extraordinarily powerful symbol for Catholics. The whole Church is one with Christ in his death. It is necessary to experience this. We have to allow ourselves experience sadness and loss. The Liturgy is a wise teacher.
However, popular devotion immediately negates the power of the empty tabernacle by setting up an ‘altar of repose’, much more elaborately decorated with flowers and candles than the high altar. We find it hard to live even for a day with anything that seems like emptiness.
The emptiness and darkness that we have allowed ourselves to feel will show us the light of Easter all the more clearly. In the darkness we rise for the Easter Vigil. Against a black sky we light the Easter fire. But this would be a forlorn gesture if Christ were not risen from the dead. Suddenly the Paschal candle is alight. Lumen Christi! – the light of Christ lightens our darkness. Exultet! – “Exult, all creation...! Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of your King.... Darkness vanishes forever...! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God's people!”
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