Eugene Burnand. Holy Saturday. 1907-1908. Musee des Beaux Arts, La Chaux de Finds, France.
The observance of Lent stretches back as far as Apostolic times. Lent was for centuries observed as forty days of fasting in the Roman Church with Sundays excluded from fasting but not from abstinence. That is, Ash Wednesday (since its institution) through Holy Saturday were days of fasting. I have separately cataloged the history of Lenten fasting in « History of Lenten Fasting: How to Observe the Traditional Lenten Fast. »
The Lenten fast began under the Apostles themselves and was practiced in various forms in the Early Church. As time went on, the fast became uniformly observed under the pain of sin. As with all Lenten practices, changes occurred over time regarding the fast, abstinence, and hearing of Holy Mass on Holy Saturday.
Holy Saturday Fasting Was Practiced in Apostolic Times
In the Early Church, Holy Saturday was part of the apostolic practice of abstaining from all food completely from Holy Thursday evening (or Good Friday morning) until sunset on Holy Saturday (or later). This was known as the « Passion Fast, » and in practice, the aim was to fast 40 hours in honor of the 40 hours our Blessed Lord’s body lay in the tomb. Holy Saturday’s fast was also practiced like the rest of Holy Week as xerophagiae: “The strictest Christian fast which is observed chiefly in the Eastern churches during Lent or especially Holy Week and in which only bread, salt, water, and vegetables may be eaten” (Webster’s Dictionary). In practice, bread, herbs, raw nuts, or raw vegetables and fruit without oil or dressing may be consumed for those who seek to keep this strict and ancient discipline.
Regarding Holy Saturday’s fast, in particular, Canon 89 of the Council in Trullo in 692 AD provides an account of the piety and devotion of the faithful of that time:
“The faithful, spending the days of the Salutatory Passion in fasting, praying and compunction of heart, ought to fast until the midnight of the Great Sabbath: since the divine Evangelists, Matthew and Luke, have shewn us how late at night it was [that the resurrection took place].”
That tradition of fasting on Holy Saturday until midnight would last for centuries.
Holy Saturday Was A Holy Day of Obligation in the Middle Ages
Holy Saturday also used to be a Holy Day of Obligation. The first catalog of Holy Days comes from the Decretals of Gregory IX in 1234, which listed 45 Holy Days. In 1642, His Holiness Pope Urban VIII issued the papal bull « Universa Per Orbem » which altered the required Holy Days of Obligation for the Universal Church to consist of 35 such days as well as the principal patrons of one’s locality.
Some of the Holy Days of Obligation removed between 1234 and 1642 included Holy Monday through Holy Saturday in addition to Easter Wednesday through Easter Saturday. Hence by 1642, Holy Saturday was no longer a Holy Day of Obligation.
Holy Saturday Fasting Remained Practiced for Centuries
In my series outlining the changes to fasting and abstinence in the colonies – and through the modern-day United States – I pointed out that Holy Saturday often remained as a day of obligatory fasting even when mitigations were issued.
For instance, the papal bull « Altitudo Divini Concilii » of Pope Paul III in 1537 reduced the days of penance and those of hearing Mass for the Indians out of pastoral concern due to the physically demanding lifestyle that they lived and also largely due to the fact that they fasted so much already. As a result, the natives were required to only hear Mass on a much smaller number of days: Sundays, Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Candlemas, Annunciation, Sts Peter and Paul, Ascension, Corpus Christi, the Assumption, and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. And the only fasting days were the Fridays in Lent, Holy Saturday, and Christmas Eve. Holy Saturday remained.
Centuries later, when Pope Leo XIII issued further changes allowing animal products throughout Lent, he explicitly excluded Holy Saturday from those mitigations:
“In 1886 Leo XIII allowed meat, eggs, and milk products on Sundays of Lent and at the main meal on every weekday [of Lent] except Wednesday and Friday in the [United States]. Holy Saturday was not included in the dispensation. A small piece of bread was permitted in the morning with coffee, tea, chocolate, or a similar beverage.”
By the time of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the days of obligatory fasting as listed in the 1917 Code of Canon Law were the forty days of Lent including Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday until noon. Why did Holy Saturday fasting only last until noon? That is at present a mystery I have not solved. The Deharbe Catechism in the 1800s refers to the fast ending at Noon, so it does predate the 1917 Code. But when it started is something I have not pinned down as it would have been after 692 AD and before 1900.
Holy Saturday Fasting Wanes Along With All Other Fasting in the 1900s
Before 1951, Bishops were able to dispense laborers and their family members from the laws of abstinence, if necessary, under the workingmen’s privilege that was introduced in 1895. This privilege of eating meat though excluded Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and the Vigil of Christmas. In 1951, the abstinence laws in America were again revised as Father Ruff summarizes:
« In 1951 the U.S. bishops standardized regulations calling for complete abstinence from meat on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, the vigils of Assumption and Christmas, and Holy Saturday morning for everyone over age seven. On the vigils of Pentecost and All Saints, meat could be taken at just one meal. Fast days, applying to everyone between 21 and 59, were the weekdays of Lent, Ember days, and the vigils of Pentecost, Assumption, All Saints, and Christmas. On these fast days only one full meal was allowed, with two other meatless meals permitted which together did not make up one full meal. Eating between meals was not permitted, with milk and fruit juice permitted. Health or ability to work exempted one. »
In 1956 under Pope Pius XII, the fast which previously ended at noon was extended to the midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, on account of the Holy Week changes enacted which made the Vigil Mass obligatory in the evening of Holy Saturday:
« The abstinence and fast prescribed for Lent, which hitherto has ceased on Holy Saturday after noon, according to canon 1252, §4 [1917 Code], will cease in the future at midnight of the same Holy Saturday. »
Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria (Nov. 16, 1955) AAS 47 (1955)
Fr. Frederick McManus, an American Canon Lawyer, commented on this change:
The Decree on the revised Holy Week changes the law of canon 1252, §4, concerning fast and abstinence on Holy Saturday. According to the canon, the Lenten fast ended after noon on Holy Saturday. This is now abrogated, the obligation is extended until midnight of Holy Saturday, and the entire day becomes one of abstinence and fast. Local Ordinaries at present possess the faculty to dispense all their subjects, including religious (even exempt), from the law of fast and abstinence on Holy Saturday.Thus they may dispense from fast or from abstinence or from both fast and abstinence on this day.
The Rites of Holy Week (Bruce 1956), pgs 22 and 23.
In 1966, Paul VI’s Paenitemini eliminated Holy Saturday and all other days of fasting except for Good Friday and Ash Wednesday in a radical departure from the past. And sadly those changes were incorporated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law which largely took Paenitemini while modifying the age of fasting.
A Traditional Holy Saturday Fast
For those seeking more traditional fasting for the final days of Lent – and in preparation for the Lord’s Resurrection – a return not to the 1950s or 1917 is in order. Rather, a return to treating all of Holy Saturday as a day of fasting and abstinence in the form of the Passion Fast practiced with the principles of Xerophagiae is the ideal. While this is not obligatory under penalty of sin, it is a worthwhile end to our fasting as we present to Almighty God the final day of Lenten fasting for His honor and glory and in reparation for our sins. Let us all seek greater perfection and never the minimum of the law.
Want to learn more about the history of fasting and abstinence? Check out the Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting and Abstinence.