Holy Saturday


The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is also referred to as Great Saturday, as in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (1951, p. 447) and in ibn al-‘Assal’s al-Qawanin (1927, p. 140). Also, in spite of the fact that it commemorates the resting of Christ’s body in the tomb, it is designated the Saturday of Joy because it heralds the Resurrection of Christ, which He had proclaimed to His disciples. Christ also promised them that they would see Him again, “and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn. 16:22). It is a day of joy not only for the living but also for the dead who died in Christ (Is. 56:1-4; Lk. 4:18-21; Pt. 3:19), for on Holy Saturday Christ’s spirit descended into HADES, the resting place of the souls of the dead.

As Good Friday draws to a close, the church prepares to celebrate the rising of the Savior from the dead, by abandoning the emblems of mourning put up throughout Holy Week, particularly on Good Friday.

Events of the Day

According to Matthew 27:62-66, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate and told him that while was still alive, He said that He would be raised from the dead after three days. They asked Pilate to give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, lest the disciples steal Christ’s body and tell the people that He had been raised from the dead, “and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate granted them their request: the stone was sealed over the grave, and a guard was posted.

Day of

Holy Saturday is the only Saturday of the year on which total abstention from food is recommended:

Not that -day is a day of fasting, being the rest from the creation, but because we ought to fast on this one only, while on this day the Creator was under the earth. . . . Do you therefore fast on the days of the Passover, beginning from the second day of the week until the preparation, and the Sabbath, six days. . . . Do you who are able fast at the day of the preparation and the Sabbath-day entirely, tasting nothing till the cock-crowing of the night; but if anyone is not able to join them both together, at least let him observe the Sabbath- day; for the Lord says somewhere, speaking of Himself: “When the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, in those days shall they fast.” In these days, therefore, He was taken from us by the Jews . . . and fastened to the Cross, and “was numbered among transgressors.” Wherefore we exhort you to fast on these days . . . but from the even of the fifth day till cock-crowing break your fast when it is daybreak of the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s Day.

(Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, 1951, pp. 445-47).

The Apostolical Canons stress this prohibition by referring to the counterprohibition applying to the other fifty-one Saturdays: “If any of the clergy be found on the Lord’s Day or on the Sabbath, excepting the one only, let him be deposed. If a layman, let him be excommunicated” (Apostolical Canons, 1956, p. 598; cf. Cummings, 1908, p. 110).

The Ceremony of the Holy Light

Every year on Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter, the four Orthodox churches in the Holy Land (Greek, Armenian, Coptic, and Syrian) participate in the celebration of the Apparition of the Holy Light. A large number of people join in, each holding thirty-three candles, symbolic of the thirty-three years of Christ’s life on earth. Clergy representing the hierarchy of the said four churches, all robed and carrying crosses, flags, censers, and Gospels, conduct processions before and after the Apparition of the Holy Light, chanting hymns relevant to the occasion.

Early in the morning all sanctuary lamps inside the Holy Sepulcher are extinguished and refilled with new oil and new wicks. At about eleven o’clock, the entrance to the Holy Sepulcher is closed and sealed. Half an hour later the Coptic procession starts from the Coptic patriarchate, with the Coptic Orthodox metropolitan at its head, and proceed to the Church of the Resurrection, passing by the Coptic monastery DAYR AL-SULTAN and the two chapels of the Four Living Creatures (see CHRIST, TRIUMPH OF) and of the archangel Michael. At half past twelve, the Greek Orthodox procession makes three circuits around the rotunda, after which the Greek patriarch or his representative, who presides over the celebration, enters the aedicula after undoing its seals.

At about one o’clock, following the celebration of the Apparition of the Holy Light, a Coptic priest and a Coptic layman take the light from the aedicula to the Coptic chapel adjacent to the Holy Sepulcher via the southern portion of the rotunda. At the same time, another member of the Coptic community receives the light from the southern oval window of the aedicula and proceeds via the same route to the Coptic chapel, where the candle lamps are lit from the Holy Light and the congregation light their own candles.

The Coptic procession starts immediately, making three circuits around the rotunda, followed by the Syrian Orthodox, all chanting. At the third circuit, they stop opposite the Holy Sepulcher, where a Coptic priest recites the Intercession of the Gospel. Then the Coptic metropolitan reads the lection from the Gospel in Coptic inside the Holy Sepulcher and is followed by a deacon who reads it in at the entrance to the Sepulcher. The procession then moves toward the Coptic chapel at the Church of the Resurrection. Here again a priest reads the Intercession, and the metropolitan reads the Gospel in Coptic, followed by a deacon in Arabic. Finally, the metropolitan gives the blessing, and the procession to the patriarchate resumes via Dayr al-Sultan.

An event of particular interest in the modern history of Egypt is especially relevant here. Following the success of his Syrian campaign in 1832, Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad ‘Ali, desired to ascertain for himself the truth of the Apparition of the Holy Light. He sent for Pope PETER VII (Butrus al-Jawli) and disclosed his intention to him. Accordingly the Church of the Resurrection was vacated, and the congregation was replaced by Ibrahim’s soldiers, while other guards were stationed outside. The Holy Sepulcher was thoroughly searched, and so were the Coptic and Greek Orthodox patriarchs, who, incidentally, had been and praying for three consecutive days. Prayers commenced as usual when, at the appointed time, the light suddenly burst into the Sepulcher and, passing through the pillars, appeared outside the church. Ibrahim Pasha was exceedingly amazed. The Coptic patriarch returned to his see in peace.

The Service of Holy Saturday

Starting on Saturday eve, this service comprises the following main parts:

The Psalmody.

Wearing white vestments and facing east, the chief priest reads the Coptic version of Psalm 151 (Muses, 1954), “I was small among my brethren, and a youth in the house of my Father.” Then, with the book wrapped in white silk and holding lighted candles, the rest of the clergy and deacons make a procession around the church, singing in Coptic, “Let us give thanks to Christ and God.” They then sit down facing each other in two rows.

Then the following passages from the Scriptures are read: the first ode of Moses (Ex. 15:1-18); the second ode of Moses (Dt. 32:1-43); the prayer of Hannah, mother of Samuel (1 Sm. 2:1-10); the prayer of Habakkuk (Hb. 3:2-19); the prayer of Jonah (Jon. 2:2-9); the prayer of Hezekiah (Is. 38:10-20); the prayer of Manasseh (2 Chr. 33:13); the first prayer of Isaiah (Is. 26:9-20); the second ode of Isaiah (Is. 25:1-12); the third ode of Isaiah (Is. 26:1-9); the ode of Jeremiah (Lam. 5:16-22); the ode of Baruch (Bar. 2:11-26); the ode of Elijah (1 Kgs. 16:16-39); the prayer of David (1 Chr. 29:10-13); the prayer of Solomon (I Kgs. 8:22-30); the prayer of Daniel (Dn. 9:4-19); the vision of Daniel (Dn. 3:1-23); the prayer of Azarias (Dn. 3:30-51); the ode of the three youths (Dn. 3:52-100; 3:24-30); the ode of the Virgin Mary (Lk. 1:46-55); the prayer of Zechariah (Lk. 1:67-79); the prayer of Simeon the Elder (Lk. 2:29-32); and the story of Susannah ([apoc.] Dn. 13:1-65).

The Morning Offering of Incense.

The morning offering of incense is conducted in the usual manner, followed by the Prayer of the Third Hour and the Prayer of the Ninth Hour. In reciting the creed, it must be remembered here that the section referring to the resurrection and ascension of Christ should be withheld.

The Revelation to John.

A bowl is filled with pure olive oil and surrounded by seven floating wicks. Seven candles are lit, and a cross is placed in the middle. Then the book of Revelation is read, first in Coptic and then in Arabic. Afterward, the Prayer of the Ninth Hour is said.

The Divine Liturgy.

In the celebration of the liturgy of Holy Saturday, a special procedure must be followed in reading the Pauline epistle, the Psalm versicle, and the Gospel, namely, that the first half must be read in a certain mourning tone, while the remainder is read in the usual festal tone. This is to reflect mourning while Christ is still buried, whereas the latter section, in a joyful tone, reflects anticipation of the Resurrection.

It is essential that the partaking of Holy Communion on Holy Saturday be completed in time to allow for the prescribed minimum period of nine hours of prior to the communion of Easter Sunday.


  • Cummings, D. The Rudder, p. 110. Chicago, 1957.
  • Ibn al-‘Assal, al-Safi. al-Qawanin. Repr. Cairo, 1927.
  • Ibn Siba‘ Yuhanna ibn Abi-Zakariya. al-Jawharah al-Nafsah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah, ed. Viktur Mansur, pp. 164-66. Cairo, 1902. Latin version Pretiosa Margarita de Scientiis Ecclesiasticis, trans. Mistrih. Cairo, 1966.
  • Muses, C. A., ed. The Septuagint Bible, trans. C. Thomson. Indian Hills, Colo., 1954.
  • Philutha’us al-Maqari et al. Dallal wa Tartib Jum‘at al-Alam wa ‘Id al-Fish al-Majid, hasab Taqlid wa-Tartib al-Kanisah al- Qibtiyyah al-Urthudhuksiyyah, pp. 145-210. Cairo, 1920.
  • William Sulayman Qiladah. al-Disquliyah, Ta‘alm al-Rusul, 41. 340-41. Cairo, 1979.
  • Yuhanna Salamah. al-La’ali al-Nafisah fi Sharh Tuqus wa- Mu‘taqadat al-Kanisah, Vol. 2, pp. 343-50. Cairo, 1909.