Monday, April 21, 2014

More Thoughts on the Time of the Holy Saturday Liturgy

source: FSSP Roma
What is the right rite time for Mass on Holy Saturday? The failure to answer this question with a proper foundation in liturgy has spelled trouble for those who discuss the significance of the Pian Holy Week and its child, the Pauline liturgy. What follows is hardly scholarship, just conjecture which I hope is well grounded in the facts and which might incite more significant discussion on a topic at the core of how we understand and value the Roman rite.

One hears in some quarters words such as "Well, Pius XII restored the right times for Holy Week, but he went too far in changing the ceremonies. Still, it's better to celebrate a vigil at night than at 8AM." I counter this common statement in saying that Pius XII got the times, particularly on Holy Saturday, far more wrong in reforming them than they were when he inherited the rites from his predecessors. Why?

Let us briefly recapitulate that in liturgical time, tomorrow begins tonight, hence the concept of first Vespers for Double feasts and just one Vespers, the evening before, for Simple feasts. The major hours—Vespers, Mattins, and Lauds—were originally one long vigil prayed outside the holy places of Jerusalem and Rome in ancient time which would conclude with the offering of the Eucharist within those holy places. This vigil eventually broke up, separating the parts into the major hours and the Mass proper. The original Office was a series of readings separated by psalms. The Office began with a lamp-lighting service called the Lucernarium. With the growth of monastic presence in Rome the more singable psalms took precedence over readings and the Office evolved into the psalter which existed from the fifth century or so until the radical redistribution of 1911.

All of this is essential to understanding my [entirely willy nilly] theory. Here is how I believe the vigil, understood in the ancient sense of the word outlined above, may have looked in the middle of the first millennium for Pascha:

Reception of Neophytes with litanies procession into the church
Mass of the Resurrection

Now we can see that the Lucernarium survived as the blessing of the fire with three collects and the bringing of the holy fire into the church in the pre-Pius XII Holy Saturday rite. Lauds, until 1911, always meant the singing of psalms 148, 149, and 150 (and still does in every other rite). Mattins is a series of "nocturns" (psalms followed by three readings). Given that Lauds ends the all night vigil by welcoming the daylight, the reception of the neophytes appears to be more of a break in the normal action of the vigil or an interpolation than its own stand alone rite. Vespers and Mattins likely had the same character: readings interspersed with psalms. 

As the Roman Church began to separate the major hours into Vespers, Mattins & Lauds, and the Mass, devout locals seeking to pray constantly and monks concurrently created the little hours which fall between the major hours, cementing the differentiation of the majors.

Now, instead of the above table, which was one vigil beginning with the Lucernarium and ending with Mass, the time from Vespers to the Mass of the Resurrection would have looked like this:

Vespers with reception of Neophytes with litanies procession into the church
Mattins & Lauds
Mass of the Ressurection

Vespers with the blessing of fire and reception of the Neophytes became its own separate rite, now practiced in the late afternoon during the late daylight after the hour of None, around four o'clock. That means Vespers began with the remnant of the Lucernarium once practiced at every Vespers. The ancient Vespers of readings interspersed with psalms remained and ended with the blessing of the font, Baptism of converts, and their entrance into the church proper with the litanies of saints, which according to Cuthbert Atchley's critical edition of the Ordo Romanus Primus was used as an entrance chant in ancient times when ending the vigil and moving into the church for the Eucharist. Perhaps a more modern reading would judge that the litany was used generally in processions. Still, ending a rite with a litany and procession would be quite odd so a simple Mass which anticipates and does not celebrate the Resurrection was added as a glue to bind these ceremonies together, hence the absence of an Offertory or Communion chant and the use of the litanies as an Introit. Psalm 116 and the Magnificat constituting a mini-Vespers was added later perhaps.

If I am right about this, and I may not be, the consequences are startling. It would mean the pre-Pius XII Holy Saturday was the most ancient extant rite in the Roman Church. It would mean that the ancient Lucernarium was preserved, in contrast to the Byzantines who moved the Lucernarium to Paschal Mattins; yes, Rome's Paschal rites were older than Byzantium's. It would mean a complete ancient form of Vespers was preserved (the twelve prophecies and tracts were the Vespers). It would also mean that the Mass itself was not terribly important and was not the "first Mass of Easter" as so many believe. It would mean that, legally, the proper time to begin this rite was when the sun was setting, not late at night (either the 9PM norm in the Pauline rite or the near-midnight norm in the Pian rite). It would also mean that the "vigil Mass" exists precisely because the Vespers service became celebrated more and more during daylight.

It would also mean that while the ancient rites were preserved, the character of the Holy Saturday liturgy changed when the little hours came into being and the short Vespers became part of the Mass. Whereas the old Vespers, now the reading of prophecies, began the celebration of the Resurrection, now it is strictly part of the day of Holy Saturday. A new liturgical day begins with Vespers, which is why any pre-Pius XII vigil Mass was sung after None and prior to Vespers, anticipating the feast and not celebrating it. The Holy Saturday rites—Lucernarium, readings, and receptions—became a part of Holy Saturday prior to the introduction of a Mass and not because of it. The Mass was never at night!

On another note, should I be right the destruction and discarding of the old Holy Saturday was a catastrophe and disgrace of monumental proportions....

But let us work towards restoration rather than wallow in bitterness. Christ is risen! He is truly risen!


  1. This is extremely fascinating, thank you for this post. What do you say though to this brief article in the Catholic Encyclopedia about Holy Saturday?

    An excerpt:

    "The night of the vigil of Easter has undergone a strange displacement. During the first six or seven centuries, ceremonies were in progress throughout the entire night, so that the Alleluia coincided with the day and moment of the Resurrection. In the eighth century these same ceremonies were held on Saturday afternoon and, by a singular anachronism, were later on conducted on Saturday morning, thus the time for carrying out the solemnity was advanced almost a whole day. Thanks to this change, special services were now assigned to Holy Saturday whereas, beforehand, it had had none until the late hour of the vigil. This vigil opened with the blessing of the new fire, the lighting of lamps and candles and of the paschal candle, ceremonies that have lost much of their symbolism by being anticipated and advanced from twilight to broad daylight..."

    1. The point being that it was originally not at sunset but indeed late in the night... Unless I am reading the encyclopedia incorrectly. Would the above be at all damaging to your theory?

    2. I am not arguing that the liturgy was originally at sunset, but rather that its character changed with the separation of the ancient all night vigil into several distinct parts and the introduction of the little hours that sunset or just prior to it would be, legally, the proper time to celebrate it.

      That article suffers from a lack of properly defined terms. Vigil in ancient times was not the same thing as it is now. It was an all-night prayer service in preparation for Sunday or a great feast which ended with the celebration of the Eucharist. That vigil broke up and became the Divine Office. Vigil nowadays means a Mass that anticipates or prepares for tomorrow's feast. The author of the Catholic Encyclopedia article, and countless other early 20th century writers, wrongly conflated the primitive and later meanings. Holy Saturday, since it had a Mass, was never a late night service. That is my point. If they really wanted to "restore" the "vigil" they would ditch the Mass, concatenate the remaining rites to Mattins & Lauds, and remove the little hours between Lauds and Mass. We would be in the church for 6+ hours. I wonder why they didn't do that? Hmmmm.....

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  2. Considering the darkness (and the fact that 10:30pm was listed as a start time), I wonder if the FSSP in Rome is actually following the pre-Pian rite in its entirety despite the presence of the triple reed. If they are, Mass can't be starting any sooner than 1am, a really taxing proposition for all concerned.

  3. I would suggest that the absence of the Offertory and Communion Antiphons is not due to the fact that the Mass of the Vigil is a simple appendage, but because it is the original Mass of Easter, whose antiquity is reflected in the fact that these chants, later developments than the chants between the lessons, are absent. I think the fact that the Mass has no Offertory, Communion, or Agnus Dei is a reflection of an early attempt at preservation.

  4. I believe one has to factor in the idea of more than one Eucharistic liturgy too. Certainly that was the case in Jerusalem when Egeria visited.

  5. Very interesting and provocative!
    There are some facts that tend to corroborate your thesis:
    1) St. Leo, among others, mentions Saturdays as Vigils or fasts in preparation for the solemnity to follow. These quarter-tense fasts come down to us with their own proper Gospels--a sign itself, usually, of great antiquity--and a series of lessons suited to the time. The concluding lesson (as for the Easter Vigil) is taken from Daniel, the three children in the fiery furnace.
    2) Despite modern assertions, there remains a kind of expectation even amid the Vigil Mass properly speaking: for instance, the lack of lights at the Gospel and the absence of the Pax.
    3) All the elements that tend to be seen nowadays as the beginning of the Easter celebration--the blessing of the font, the resurrection of the Alleluia, and the resumption of white vestments--can just as easily be viewed as preparations for the actual celebration of Pascha, a kind of readying everything and restoring it to its proper place. That the Alleluia, for instance, is followed not by its usual verses but rather by Confitemini without the repetition of the Alleluia tends to confirm this view.

    The difficulty--if it be such--is that there are many references to the night, most notably in the Exsultet but also in the Canon. However, there is one explanation (offered by the estimable Rubricarius) that this "night" is figurative, referring to the disorder of sin and the consequent disorder of earthly time, as the Prophet seems to imply when speaking of the "people that walked in darkness." Alternatively, there may be a modern, and widespread, misunderstanding of the ancient Roman notion of the times of the day, so that the later afternoon and evening would be thought of as "night"--after all, to this day the Italians say "buona sera" as a greeting immediately after noon when the sun is at its brightest, and we use "noon" ("nona hora") to refer to the midpoint of the day.

    With John R I agree that a 10;30 p.m. start-time for anything is an undue burden, but I pray that Trinita' followed the ancient rite, especially having witnessed for the first time the oddities of the 1955 business (and I wholeheartedly echo the sentiments of Dr. Glover regarding the same!).

    A very happy Easter to you and all your readers!
    Fr. Capreolus

  6. Our Easter Vigil (NO) at the cathedral started at 10 PM and ended roughly around 12:40 AM.

    Could the reference in the Praeconium to the "sacrifĂ­cium vespertĂ­num" be related to a primitive form of Vespers?

  7. Interesting thoughts.

    It's sad that, even when one hears whispers of the pre-Pius XII rites being celebrated, they're at the 1955 times. Other than at sedevacantist chapels, I've never heard of the rites being celebrated on the pre-Pian schedule; even the rabidly pre-1955 Fr. Perez celebrates in the afternoon and evening according to his independent chapel's website (

    (One exception might be the Carmelite Monks in Wyoming, whose Lenten newsletter I received today. One picture shows the Easter candle being lit from the trident; another shows the 'outside' part of the Holy Saturday ceremonies in broad daylight - though whether it's morning or late afternoon daylight is unclear.)