The day between Good Friday and Easter Day commemorates the Descent
of our Blessed Lord's soul into hell, and the rest of His body in the grave.
In the Gospel we are told that this Sabbath-day was "an high day" in the
Jewish ritual. It was the day when all were to be present before
the Lord [Exodus 23:17], and when the sheaf of the first fruits was to
be offered. [Lev. 23 10, 11.] In the Christian Church it at
once acquired the name of the "Great Sabbath," being so called in the Epistle
of the Church of Smyrna respecting the martyrdom of St. Polycarp.
The ancient Epistle and Gospel referred to Holy Baptism, and to our Lord's
Resurrection: those now appointed were introduced into the Prayer Book
of 1549. The ancient Collect was, "O God, Who didst make this most
holy night to shine with the glory of our Lord's Resurrection; preserve
in Thy new-born family the spirit of adoption which Thou hast given: that
they, being renewed both in body and mind, may render unto Thee a pure
service, through the same our Lord." This was not adopted in the
translated Offices of the Church (probably because it had been associated
with the blessing of the new fire and the Paschal candle); nor was any
Collect provided for the day until 1637, when that printed above was inserted
in the Prayer Book prepared for Scotland. This is thought to have
been the composition of Archbishop Laud, and was the foundation of the
present Collect, which is first found in Cosin's writing in the margin
of the Durham book. Even this modern Collect keeps up a memorial
of the primitive custom of the Church in administering Baptism on Easter
Eve. But the practice having fallen into disuse, the devotional tone
of the day is brought into a more direct and close analogy with the Holy
Week history of our Blessed Lord by the commemoration of His burial, in
the Gospel, and His Descent into Hell, in the Epistle. [See
Blunt's notes to the Apostles' Creed.]
The Vigil of Easter has always been celebrated with much ceremony, even
from primitive times. It is mentioned by Tertullian [ad Uxorem,
ii. 4], and in the Apostolical Constitutions [v. 20], by Eusebius [vi.
9], Lactantius [vii. 19], St. Chrysostom, and St. Jerome. St. Gregory
Nazianzen [Orat. xiv. in Pasch.] speaks of the churches being
so lighted up that it seemed like day, and this he refers to as a symbolical
usage (in the spirit of the ancient Collect given above), memorializing
the glorious illumination brought on the world by the Resurrection of the
Sun of Righteousness. The services continued until after midnight,
to welcome the early dawn of the Resurrection; and also from a tradition
(current among the Jews as well) that the second coming of Christ will
be in the night of Easter Eve. At a later period, and in the ancient
Offices of the English Church, the new fire, the Paschal candle, and the
incense, all received Benediction on this day for use in the succeeding
There has ever been something of festive gladness in the celebration
of Easter Eve, which sets it apart from Lent, notwithstanding the fast
still continues. To the disciples it was a day of mourning after
an absent Lord; but the Church of the Resurrection sees already the triumph
of that Lord over Satan and Death. In the promise of the prophetic
words, "I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them
from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction"
[Hos. 13:14], she sees afar off the dawn of the Resurrection, and already
the words sound in her ears, "Your sorrow shall be turned into joy."
A celebration of the Holy Communion took place on this day, as on Maundy
Thursday, at the time of Vespers; and in the place of the Introit was sung
Gloria in Excelsis Deo, with its response, Et in terra pax hominibus,
while the bells of the church were ringing in the joys of Easter.
At Milan, "Ad Missam in ecclesia majore," the announcement of our Lord's
Resurrection was thrice made in the words, "Christus Dominus resurrexit,"
when the response thrice followed, "Deo gratias."