The Preparation Rites: Keeping the Holy in Holy Saturday

March 07, 2007


Among the minor rites in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) there is a set of prayers known as the Preparation Rites. These rites (in the plural) do what they say: they offer a final preparation for the Elect prior to the Rites of Initiation at the Easter Vigil.

According to the rubrics of the RCIA, these rites take place on Holy Saturday, usually during the morning or afternoon.  Holy Saturday is to be a day set aside for prayer and reflection before the rituals of initiation and so these preparatory rites serve as focus for the coming events of the Vigil.

However, the truth of what occurs on Holy Saturday often belies the prayerful and reflective objectives of this day.  For in most parishes the day of “Easter Eve,” much like Christmas Eve is filled with a flurry of last minute preparations:  attending to a myriad of ceremonial and ritual details for the Vigil and full scale decorating for the coming fifty days of Easter. 

In addition, the day of Holy Saturday makes a convenient time in which to rehearse for the Vigil, especially with the Elect and Candidates, making sure everyone understands the choreography and cues of the liturgy.The “busy-ness” of the day leaves little time for prayer, and perhaps scant opportunity to truly prepare oneself for the evening celebration.

It is unfortunate that this day becomes observed in almost a purely functional way – as a void between Good Friday and the Vigil itself, without any defining character.  It is true that the day itself has no strict liturgical focus; the Vigil, designated to be celebrated “in the night” if kept to historical tradition, means that it is celebrated deep in the night, spanning the time between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. 

Yet the lack of a liturgical celebration on Holy Saturday is not an oversight, but rather is a profound symbolic day wherein the Church is meant to contemplate the “real absence” of Christ:  Christ in the tomb, and we as a body of believers in the stillness and silence of this day awaiting, breathlessly perhaps, for the response of God to the presumed destruction of the plan of salvation.

It is within this context that the Preparation Rites of the RCIA serve a powerful purpose not only for the Elect, but for the whole Church, which has supported them in process of conversion and now waits, breathlessly, for their union to the Body of Christ.  Within the three (possibly four) actions of the Preparation Rites, one discovers some of the fundamental truths of our faith, which all believers are in need of bringing to active memorial during the hours before this great feast of our faith.

The first action is the Presentation of the Creed, the fundamental proclamation of the faith.  Far from a loyalty oath, the presentation of the Creed proclaims to the Elect what it is that we believe, and in so doing serves to remind the parish community why it is we believe these things and offers it courage to believe in them once again.

The second action is the Ephatha Rite, taking its name from the word spoken by Jesus in his encounter with the deaf and mute man.  To him Jesus says, “be opened!” and for the Elect we pray that their ears be opened to hear God’s word and that their mouths be opened to proclaim God’s praise.  In the kernel of this action the Church is once again offered to enact its witness in the world:  one of being hearers and doers of God's word.

The third action is one which, while not often done in the, has tremendous symbolic significance – the taking of new name.  This action intensely recognizes and reveals the life transforming power of initiation, wherein one leaves behind the “old man” (or “old woman”) and takes on the life of Christ.  For the Church such an action in the Preparation Rites provides a powerful reminder of the seriousness and surrender involved in authentically living out the gospel.

Finally, if not celebrated during the Fifth Week of Lent, the Presentation of the Lord’s Prayer can occur as a fourth action of the Preparation Rites.  In this action the Elect receive the most ancient of all Christian prayers, and the parish community is reminded of the indispensable role of this prayer, which in its familiarity might be taken for granted.

These four actions of the Preparation Rites of Holy Saturday provide a powerful focus for a day in time, and yet outside of time.  While some parishes choose to celebrate them as particular to an RCIA group, the rites have a momentous value for the entire parish community, which should all along see itself as pivotal in the conversion process of the Elect.  These rites enhance a day of silence and stillness, reflection and prayer, during which the Body of Christ readies itself to affirm the incorporation of the Elect into the Church, and to reaffirm its own faith in Christ given through baptism.

James Sabak, OFM is a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University, Washington, DC.


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