Czech Easter - Holy Week: White Saturday
Contributed by Petr Chudoba

In the Early Church: Like Great Friday, Great Saturday became a separate feast day in the latter half of the fourth century in Jerusalem. It was then a day for new members to receive the sacrament of baptism and, following that, their first communion.

The new members would assemble in the church during the afternoon, the men on one side, the women on the other. After an instruction by the bishop, the priests performed on them those rites which are still practiced in the baptism of infants and adults: the exorcism of the powers of evil, the touching of ears and nostrils as a symbol of opening their minds to the word and grace of God, and the solemn pledge of conversion.

This pledge was accompanied by a dramatic gesture. Turning toward the west and pointing with the forefinger in the direction of sunset, each convert uttered these words, "I renounce thee, Satan, with all thy pomps and all thy works," then turning to the east and pointing likewise, they would say, "To Thee I dedicate myself, Jesus Christ, eternal and uncreated Light." After this, each one recited the Creed publicly before the whole congregation; then they were dismissed to spend the last few hours before their baptism in quiet recollection and prayer.

Easter Eve was spent as a night of prayer. The churches were always crowded on that night, and those who could not get inside stood with the crowds outside the church. For those who were fortunate enough to get inside, the services were an unforgettable experience. There was the lighting of the large Paschal candle, and then at midnight the consecration of the waters of the baptismal font. Then followed the baptism of the men, women and children, in that order.

At the conclusion of the baptisms and readings, the newly baptized members were brought into the main church nave in procession. The procession today is a reminder of this: as is the procession round the font while singing St. Paul's line: "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, alleluia!" In those days, those who were baptized were anointed with holy oil. Then they donned their white robes. In Czech, Easter Saturday is referred to as White Saturday (Bílá sobota), a term derived from the white (bílé) robes worn by the new members.

The services lasted until dawn, for at that time the Paschal Vigil lasted all night. The faithful kept lights burning all night so their rays would link with the morning sun. The services were not elaborate.

It was also called the Day of Light. All activities on that, and the previous day, should have been aimed at cleansing the soul, body and dwellings, so that everything was to be spick and span.

In Czech, the word Velikonoce refers to the Veliké noci, or great nights, during which Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The night from Bílá sobota (White Saturday) to Easter Sunday was from ancient times regarded as the greatest night on the Church calendar. On this day the bells come back from Rome and are rung to signal the end of the fast.

People in their Sunday best were ready for the festive Mass of the Resurrection. The housekeeper extinguished all the fires in the household and took a piece of firewood to the church. There she lit it from blessed fire, brought it home, and lighted the fires again.

Daytime church services are not held at all, and services are held instead either after the sun goes down or after midnight. A procession parades around the whole square, and then the entire church. Once inside, the priests bless the water, candles and lights. Only blessed candles and lights are used in the church during these night-time services. Pieces of wood are scorched and taken by people to put in the rafters of their houses for protection against lightning and fire.

Bílá sobota is regarded, along with Zelený čtvrtek, as a lucky day for sowing. The farmers place ashes on their fields to ensure a good crop, and shake the trees, so that they'll yield a lot of fruit. They say that if it rains on Bílá sobota, it will rain often during the coming year.

If you're in the Czech Republic on Bílá sobota, take time to stand a while in front of the church in Domaľlice, Kyjov, Blatnice, Břeclav or Vlčnov and enjoy the ceremonial costumes of the women and girls.

Because of the Virgin Mary's faith in His promise to rise again from the dead, the day is consecrated to her.