By Sergei V. Bulgakov
On Great Saturday the Holy Church remembers the sojourn of Jesus Christ in the flesh in the tomb, His sincere descent into Hades, the introduction of the thief to paradise, the sitting on the throne with the Father and Spirit and together with them will indicate beforehand the approach of the great event of the Resurrection of Christ. In the exclusive, special services of Great Saturday the Holy Church, pouring out tears of love and gratitude for the One Who laid down His life for His friends and enemies and Who in the flesh reposed in the tomb, calls out to everyone and all to this holiest and most precious tomb -- the expectation of all nations, calls out to both heaven and earth, both angels and men to Him; surrounds itself with the bright clouds of the ancient witnesses who had foreseen Him for a thousand years and with the councils of New Testament heralds, who here as if giving answer before the Crucified One in his universal sermons about His expiatory cross, death and resurrection. All the divine services of Great Saturday represent a wonderful, unexampled combination of the most opposed feelings - sorrow and joyfulness, grief and joy, tears and bright singing.
The Church divine services begin this day in late morning and continue successively up to its end, so that the last Sabbath hymns merge with the Resurrection and become fixed only at the sounds already beginning the most solemn "Christ is Risen"!
Great Saturday Divine Liturgy
On Great Saturday the Vespers and Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is served. In this way the last church service, according to the common order, relates to the next day on which the Great Saturday incorporates the Resurrection with its hymns. Therefore the liturgy of Great Saturday is revealed as the magnified conclusion of the passion services and at the same time as a direct, unimpeded Prefeast of the most magnificent Christian celebration, the most joyous pre-beginning of Pascha.
The Reading of Acts of the Apostles
The blessing of the loaves and wine is done immediately after the Dismissal of the Liturgy. This rite is the memory of the ancient Christian custom to await the approach of Pascha in the temple, listening to the reading of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In view of the strict fast which was observed the whole day before the feast of Pascha, and the present vigil, the Church supported the faithful with blessed bread and wine.
On the night of Pascha the Holy Church prescribes the reading of the Acts of the Holy Apostles as indisputable witnesses and loud heralds of the Divinity of Christ and His Resurrection. This watchfulness of the new Israel reminds one of the watchfulness of ancient Israel on the night of the deliverance of its firstborn from death in Egypt. Before the reading of the Acts the reader proclaims: "The reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostles", the priest replies: "Through the Prayers of the Holy Apostles, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us". According to the Ustav [Typikon], the Book of Acts should be read up to the 4th hour of the night, according to our reckoning up to 10 o'clock in the evening.
Besides the strict fast, the passing of the day of Great Saturday in antiquity was distinguished by special internal concentration and solemn tranquility in church life. "What is this?” asks St. Epiphanius in his homily on Great Saturday. "Today deep silence and repose rules on earth. Deep silence because the King reposes. The Earth is frightened and abides in repose because God in the flesh reposes and the Dead God in the flesh awakes those who through the ages have reposed, and Hades trembles. God died for a short time to wake those who are in Hades".
1. According to the explanation of the Most Reverend Nicanor, Archbishop of Chersonese, the blessing and distribution blessed bread and wine which is now done is undoubtedly an apostolic tradition. The Holy Apostles partook of the Old Testament paschal lamb together with Lord Jesus Christ in the night from Great Thursday to Great Friday. According to tradition, on Great Friday they remained without taste of food at all from deep grief. Meanwhile on Great Saturday, under the ruling of the high priests, Passover was celebrated by all Jews. The Jewish Ordo required on the first day of Passover to partake, except for the Passover lamb, unleavened bread with bitter grasses and of cooked sweet fruits: figs, dates and grapes, and to drink a cup of wine mixed with water. When the Passover day of Great Saturday was fading into the evening, they returned to their oppressing sorrow from the given horror, exhausted from their two-day fast, the Holy Apostles remembered their crucified, dead and buried Teacher with a prayer for the departed, mixed with the singing of the Passover Psalms, including Psalm 118: "Blessed are the blameless in the way", which is also sung by us over the tomb of Christ on the morning of Great Saturday, and with the paschal meal, only still without the paschal lamb, which they already ate from Great Thursday to Great Friday. And all this rite of the Old Testament Passover [Pascha] was now terminated by the prototype of the sacrifice of the divine Lamb. Thus our offering and tasting of this blessed bread and wine on this great day and hour, which the Holy Apostles partook on this day and hour, there is a memorial canon for our Lord Himself buried by us and reposing in the tomb. This is the origin also of the placing in the church the memorial kutiya [koliva] made from wheat grains, decorated sweet fruit, and of the mourning cup. In our churches on Great Saturday as this was forgotten and the sweet dried fruits together with blessed bread and wine were removed from the usual custom. But the monastic Ustav [Typikon] rules to give the brethren watching the tomb of the Lord a piece of bread, six figs ordates and a cup of wine, just as this was required by the apostolic tradition. It is not any different in the memorial custom of the paschal apostolic meal after the Lord reposed (Pouchenie Nikanora, Archiepiscopa Khersonskago [Lectures of Nicanor, Archbishop of Chersonese], Vol. 2, pages 240-241).