Holy Saturday (in Latin, Sabbatum Sanctum), the “day of the entombed Christ”, is the Lord’s day of rest, for on that day Christ’s body lay in His tomb. We recall the Apostle’s Creed, which says “He descended unto the dead”. It is a day of suspense between two worlds, that of darkness, sin and death, and that of the Resurrection and the restoration of the Light of the World. For this reason no divine services are held until the Easter Vigil begins that night. This day between Good Friday and Easter Day makes present to us the end of one world and the complete newness of the era of salvation inaugurated by the Resurrection of Christ.
Ideally, Holy Saturday should be the quietest day of the year (although this is not as easy in a busy household with children as it might be in a convent or monastery.) Nightfall on Holy Saturday is time for joy and greatest expectation because of the beautiful liturgy of the Easter Vigil, often referred to as the Mother of all Holy Vigils, or the Great Service of Light. The Easter Vigil was restored to the liturgy in 1955, during the liturgical reform that preceded the Second Vatican Council.
During the day, the preparations at home that must be made for Easter Day are appropriate, however, because they keep our attention fixed on the holiness and importance of the most central feast of the Church. Working with our children to prepare for Easter can offer us many “teaching moments”, as well.
Family Preparations for Easter
As with Christmas, the secular aspects of the Easter season threaten to overwhelm its religious significance. And as in Advent, which is also a penitential season, the solemnity of the events we celebrate during Holy Week risk being obscured by the advance preparations which we may make for the joyous celebration of Easter. As Catholics, we need to keep this in mind, and not put out the Easter decorations before Easter. Holy Week and especially the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) are so rich with meaning that we must be careful not to lose any of it, and to make our observances fit the solemnity of the celebration. But any festive celebration (and Easter is our greatest cause of rejoicing) takes advance preparation.
Easter Customs: New Clothes, Easter Rabbits and Easter Eggs
Most American families observe Easter customs and traditions, but the religious significance of many of these may be lost. For example, new Easter clothes. It was part of the baptismal ceremony (and a token still remains) that the candidates for baptism (Catechumens) were given a new white garment to wear both its newness and its whiteness signifying purity. It may seem that Easter is just another excuse for merchandizing (so does Christmas). But we Christians need not regard wearing new or special Easter clothes simply as commercialism or vanity. Christians should try to keep in mind, when wearing something new for this holiday, our New Life in Christ. And we should do our best to make our appearance match the joyousness of the greatest feast of the Church.
The Christian symbolism of Easter bunnies might seem pretty obscure, and it’s easy to suppose that the rabbits are simply a pagan symbol of fecundity taken over by Christianity. Even if so, bear in mind that the ancestors of pre-Christian (even pre-historic) pagans at some time knew about the true God ? Adam and Eve and Noah, for example. Pagan beliefs about God’s action in the world and about man’s true destiny were far from the truth, of course, but many things can be understood through basic human intelligence and that intelligence comes from God.
The coming of spring is a cause for rejoicing for everybody, whether Christians or non-Christians. The Easter bunny is actually a pretty good symbol of God’s plan for His creatures (including humans) to “be fruitful and multiply”, and of the renewed exuberance of all creatures in cooperating with God in creating new life. (The Easter bunny might seem to be more a metaphor for God’s plan for His creation in Genesis than in the Gospels.) Maybe we should think of the fecundity of rabbits as a symbol of evangelizing, and the many new believers God desires. We could think of the eggs the Easter rabbit carries in a basket as representing Christians carrying the message of Christ into the world.
The Easter egg is a symbol of the Resurrection. The shell represents the tomb, which could not contain the Resurrected Lord. The chick that “bursts forth” from its lifeless shell is a metaphor for the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection.
Filling baskets with colored Easter eggs is a nearly universal custom in Christian countries, and there are almost as many traditional ways to dye and decorate eggs as there are ethnic groups. From the very elaborate and expensive Easter eggs made by the jeweler Fabergé for the Russian czar in the nineteenth century, to the intricately etched pysanky eggs of the Ukraine and similarly distinctive egg-decorating customs of eastern Europe, to the simple (if messy) kitchen-table food-coloring dyed eggs most Americans know, the Easter egg is revered as a symbol of the Resurrection.
While your family probably has its own traditions about the best way to do Easter eggs, there are web pages and articles and library books on the subject that might give you some new ideas.
In some parishes there is a custom of bringing filled Easter baskets to the Easter Vigil, and, after Mass, the priest blesses all the baskets and the eggs, candy, Easter breads or flowers they contain with holy water. If your parish doesn’t do this, or if your children are too young to go to the Easter Vigil, you might want to do this with your children when they set their baskets of eggs out for hiding before bedtime on Holy Saturday. A simple sign of the Cross with holy water could be made by each child on his own basket.
The Light of Christ (Lumen Christi)
The Paschal candle represents Christ, the Light of the World: “I am the light of the world. He that followeth me walketh not in darkness” (Jn 8:12). The pure beeswax of which the candle is made represents the sinless Christ, who was formed in the womb of His Mother. The wick signifies His humanity; the flame, His Divine Nature, both soul and body. Five grains of incense inserted into the candle in the form of a cross recall the aromatic spices with which His Sacred Body was prepared for the tomb, and of the five wounds in His hands, feet, and side.
During the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night the priest or deacon carries the candle in procession into the dark church. A new fire, symbolizing our eternal life in Christ, is kindled, which lights the candle. The candle, representing Christ Himself, is blessed by the priest, who then inscribes in it a cross, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (Alpha and Omega - “the beginning and the end”), and the current year, as he chants the prayer below. He then affixes the five grains of incense.
The Easter candle is the largest and most beautiful in the Church. It is a reminder of the Risen Redeemer, “who shining in light left the tomb”. It is lighted each day during Mass throughout the Paschal season until Ascension Thursday.
In Rome, the wax of the Easter candle from St. Peter’s is used to make little locket-like Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) medals. The heart-shaped gold-colored locket is embossed with a cross and a lamb and contains a drop of blessed wax.
Christ yesterday and today,
the Beginning and the End,
the Alpha and Omega.
His are the times and ages:
To Him be glory and dominion
Through all ages of eternity. Amen
A Family Easter Candle
If for some reason your family cannot attend the Easter Vigil (if the children are too young to be taken out late at night, for example) some of this symbolism can be brought into the home, and the ceremony below might be done after dark just before bedtime. The family Easter candle should be large enough to be lighted at meal times for forty days. Most religious goods stores carry Christ Candles, which will serve. A new fire can be kindled in a large heat-proof pan or you may want to do it outside, in the barbecue, for instance.
The father may lead the Blessing of the New Fire:
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray. O God, through Thy Son, the cornerstone, thou hast bestowed on the faithful the fire of Thy glory, sanctify this new fire for our use; and grant that by this Paschal festival we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires that with pure minds we may come to the realm of perpetual light. Through the same Christ Our Lord.
(Sprinkle fire with holy water.)
The father makes five holes in the candle by piercing it with a hot skewer; then members of the family insert five cloves (or five pieces of incense).
The father lights the candle, and the following Blessing of the Paschal Candle is read:
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray. May Thy abundant blessing descend upon this lighted candle, we beseech Thee, almighty God: Look down on it shining in the night, that the sacrifice offered this night may shine by the secret mixture of Thy light; and wherever this mystically blessed object shall be brought, may the power of Thy majesty be present, and may all the deceitful works of Satan be driven out. Through Christ our Lord.
Other prayers that may be said after the lighting of the candle are:
We pray thee, Lord: may this candle consecrated to thine honor continue with undiminished light to dispel darkness. Receive it as a fragrant and pleasing offering, and let its light mingle with the lamps of heaven. Amen.
May the morning star behold its flame that morning star who knows no setting, who rose from hell and gently shines on man. Amen.
By His wounds
Holy and glorious
May He protect us,
Who is Christ the Lord, Amen.
Following the blessing the family might recite the Litany of the Saints, another traditional prayer used during the Easter Vigil.
Easter Day and Easter Season
Christ is Risen, Alleluia
He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia
With these joyous words Christians have greeted one another on Easter Day for nearly two thousand years. And every Easter the words proclaim anew the faith and hope of every Christian in the Good News of God’s profound love of mankind, a love that conquers death. This Easter greeting is still used today. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches this proclamation is made during the Easter service as each person kisses the Gospel book.
Whenever Christians greet one another with these exultant phrases, we affirm the unity of believers throughout all times and ages until He comes again in glory. Every Christian family can establish the custom of exchanging this historic greeting, which is also a profession of faith, on Easter morning. It would set an appropriate tone of rejoicing for the entire day (and a reminder, also, for young children who may be so excited about their Easter baskets that they tend to forget why we are celebrating.)
Mass on Easter Day is the most splendid and exuberant celebration of the Church. For this is the Sunday of Sundays, the day of the Resurrection of Christ, the center and foundation of our faith. As Saint Paul said, “If Christ be not risen, your faith is vain” (I Cor 15:14, 17). Thus Easter is the pinnacle of all feasts of the Church year, which began with Advent, or the expectation of the coming of the Messiah, sent by God to provide the means for our Salvation. The culmination of the entire liturgy is the Easter feast. Families who attend Mass on Easter Day join millions of Christians all over the world past and present in joyous affirmation of our redemption through the love of Christ, our hope of salvation, and our faith in the resurrection from the dead and the life of the world to come.
Although the Easter Vigil and Mass fulfills the obligation for Easter Mass, the Easter Day celebration is a highlight that many will not want to miss, and it is permissible to attend both.
Every element of the festive celebration of Mass on Easter Day resounds with the great Alleluia the triumphant word of praise by men and angels for God.
Alleluia is the Latin spelling of Hallelujah, a Hebrew word adopted by the Christian Church. (Another familiar Hebrew word is amen, “so be it”.) Hallel is the greatest expression of praise in Hebrew. Combined with Jah, the shortened form of the name of God, JHVH (meaning “I AM”), it becomes Hallelujah.
From the time of the apostles the proclaiming of the Alleluia was a revered custom in ordinary life as well as in connection with the liturgy of the Church. Farmers and tradesmen sang it as they worked, and mothers taught their children to pronounce it before any other word.
According to Father Francis Weiser, “in the Roman Empire the Alleluia became the favorite prayerful song of oarsmen and navigators. The Roman poet-Bishop Sidonius Apollinaris (480) described how the river banks and shores of Gaul resounded with the Alleluia song of the rowing boatmen” (from The Year of the Lord in the Christian Home, pp. 28-29). The word Alleluia fits the familiar tune of the Song of the Volga Boatman. Try it!
In Christian homes on Easter morning children and parents might greet each other with Alleluia, then light a specially decorated Easter candle. This word of praise on Easter morning inspired Georg Frederich Handel to write his famous Hallelujah Chorus. Playing a recording of this magnificent Chorus from Handel’s Messiah on Easter morning is a memorable way of awaking the household to the joy of the day and the promise of the coming Easter Mass and celebration.
The Lord’s Day
Every Sunday is a celebration of the day of the Lord’s Resurrection. Every celebration of Mass commemorates all the Easter Mysteries the Last Supper at which Christ instituted the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and His Resurrection, the historic events on which Christianity is based. And each Sunday celebrates the Descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (fifty days after Easter), which established the Church.
Every Sunday, then, is a “little Easter”. Every Sunday is Christ’s feast day. This is why the Sundays during Lent are excluded from the forty days of penance; and why saints’ feast days are not ordinarily celebrated on Sunday. All Catholics are seriously obliged to participate in the Church’s celebration of Mass on Sundays.
From the earliest days of the Church the celebration of the Eucharist was made on the first day of the Jewish week. We know this because specific reference is made to the Lord’s day in Acts 20:7 “And on the first day of the week, when we were assembled together to break bread Paul discoursed with them”; and I Corinthians 16:2 “On the first of each week, let everyone of you personally put aside something and save it up as he has prospered”.
The word Sunday dies solis, or “day of the sun” is a pre-Christian word retained by the Church (in English-speaking countries) because it emphasizes the belief that Christ is the “Sun of Righteousness”. Saint John, in Revelation 1:10, refers to the dies dominica, “the Lord’s Day”.
Ideas for Family Easter Celebrations
Everything we have done as a family during the forty days of Lent has led us to this day. It is time for rejoicing! It is appropriate to bring out the best of everything for the feast of Easter Day. Flowers, china the works. If you can, though, have food that doesn’t take a lot of last-minute preparation, so that instead of fretting too much in the kitchen, like Martha, you have time to rejoice with Jesus, like Mary.
Easter baskets and Easter egg hunts and lawn rolls are surely a universal occupation of American children on Easter morning along with chocolate eggs and bunnies and marshmallow peeps and jelly beans and green Easter grass all over the carpet and keeping the dog and the baby out of the chocolate! Nearly every family has its own special customs and traditional foods for Easter.
Here are some suggestions that may help focus your family’s Easter celebration on the meaning of this holy day.
The Alleluia egg is an egg painted gold, often with the word “Alleluia” written on it. The child who finds the Alleluia egg is accorded a special honor, such as getting to light the Christ Candle and say a prayer at mealtime, or being allowed to cut and serve the Easter cake, or choosing the next family activity.
Easter basket presents: In addition to the requisite excess of candy eggs, we hope you’ve included in the basket something a little more lasting, like the inexpensive little books of Bible stories for the younger children; perhaps a medal or picture or a biography of a child’s patron saint; even a recording of religious music would be welcomed by some older children.
Decorations for the Easter table do not have to be lilies, but could be any spring flowers arranged in a pretty bowl or basket. Daffodils would be nice for their sunshiny color. Candles really ought to be part of the table decorations, not only because they are so festive, but because of the allusion to the Light of Christ.
Write the name of each family member or guest on an Easter egg to use as a place card.
Easter Lamb cake: You can buy a lamb-shaped cake mold to bake it in. Decorate it with white frosting sprinkled liberally with flaked coconut to represent wool, and give it eyes of raisins or chocolate chips. Little children just love these lamb cakes and bigger ones can help with the decorating.
Easter egg nest cakes: Another cake idea (simpler but pretty) is to make cupcakes, decorate them with green-colored frosting sprinkled with green shredded coconut “grass” (just add a few drops of green food coloring to a tablespoon or so of water, then stir in the coconut until it is nicely dyed.) With few jelly beans (or, even better, one or two coated chocolate “bird eggs”) on the top, each little cake will become a colorful Easter egg nest.
Colored eggs: Make colored deviled eggs. Peel hard-cooked eggs and dye them in a cup of water to which you add a few drops of food coloring and about a tablespoon of vinegar. Either leave the eggs whole to decorate the meat platter, or make deviled eggs. Either way they are pretty, especially on a bed of bright green parsley.
You can get dozens of good holiday ideas from the internet, household magazines and the food section of newspapers. The main difference in the celebration and festivities in a Christian household is that we know what we’re celebrating and why!
Family Activities for Easter Week
Easter, the most important feast of the Church year, has an “octave”, that is, it is celebrated for eight days through the following Sunday (or “Low Sunday”), the Octave of Easter Day.
• Catholic schools have a holiday on Easter Monday. If the weather permits, this would be a good day to go to the park or zoo if you live near one, or to go on a walk looking closely for signs of spring, promise, rebirth, reawakening.
• An alternative is to go to an art museum to look at Christian art; or to the library in search of some of the beautifully printed reproductions of medieval Books of Hours. One of the finest is the Trés Riches Heures painted by the Limbourg brothers three of the greatest illuminators in Europe, who worked for one of the most famous art patrons of all time, Jean de France, duc de Berry (13401416).
These wonderful books are filled with fascinating pictures depicting virtually every event in the life of Christ, and most children would enjoy looking at and talking about these pictures with you. (This could take the place of the bedtime story this week.)
You can also find these and similar books and images from them on the internet.
• Making a table-top tableau of a scene from the Bible can occupy children for hours. These can often be highly entertaining interpretations of the original Bible stories. To get the children started, cut the top and one side off a small cardboard box (a shoe box is fine) to use for the “stage”. Figures and other props can be made of modeling clay or play-dough. Other bits and scraps you have around the house cloth, yarn, string, scraps of cloth or colored paper, pipe cleaners, etc. can be used, too. (Another idea is to use scraps to make collages on cut-open brown grocery bags.)
• Families may pray the Divine Mercy novena, beginning Good Friday and ending on the Octave of Easter, which Pope John Paul II named Divine Mercy Sunday. (A novena is accessible on the Divine Mercy web site: thedivinemercy.org/message/ devotions/novena.php).
Adapted from Family Sourcebook for Lent and Easter
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