Growing up I never knew this last day of Lent had a name. It was simply another Saturday, this one sandwiched between the big days of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I had a hunch it should be different but never knew that Holy Saturday had an ancient history and a good news faith-expanding story attached to it.
On this in-between day, stuck between the horror of the cross and the hope of resurrection, the friends and disciples of Jesus enter into the emptiness and wait. What do you do when your world has come to an end?
You sit in disappointment and despair; you do nothing because you’ve come to the end of all you can do. All your best efforts to be part of something good, to fix what’s broken, to set right all that’s wrong, to relieve the pain, it’s come up ashes. On Holy Saturday you trade your hard work and righteous rage for stillness. You keep vigil and wait.
What’s the purpose in this? Obviously God could have moved quickly from death to resurrection. Why the three days? Why the wait?
We are such impatient creations, aren’t we? Today, I’m making bread to help me find something of the rhythm of this day. Bread-making is a patient craft where you spend most of the time not doing much. Make the levain and sit; make the dough and be still; fold and knead the dough and wait.
But while I keep vigil so much is going on. Mixing my levain with water and flour creates this ecosystem of interacting yeasts, bacteria and enzymes, fermenting the whole lump to produce pockets of carbon dioxide that gives rise to a beautiful loaf. But my work is mostly to wait.
On this day of emptiness, Jesus is doing something yet unnoticed by a waiting world. In the Apostles Creed, Christians confess that Jesus “descended to the dead” or “descended to hell.” Among other things, we are confessing that in his death Christ entered the lair of the strongman (Mark 3), entering Hades after his death and raiding hell, announcing the good news to the captives.
In a number of New Testament passages, we hear - mostly in hints and whispers - something of the unseen work of Jesus on Holy Saturday. “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive”, after having first “descended into the lower parts of the earth.” (Eph 4:8-9) Or in 1 Peter 3:18-22, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,” and then went “into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” Or in the gospel of John we read that in Christ “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25)
While the disciples grieve, gutted over the loss of all hope, salvation itself is being worked out.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has kept alive the wonder of Holy Saturday, in what is called the harrowing or the ransacking of hell. I find the icons and images in the Orthodox Church for Christ’s harrowing of hell so moving. Christ is always shown standing on the broken gates of hell (often in the form of a cross), “trampling down death by death.” Some picture Satan
below his feet, bound in chains. What I find most compelling is how Christ holds the hands of Adam and Eve, the first to be rescued in Jesus’ resurrection parade. Look at the hands - it’s not our first parents reaching up and grabbing the hand of Jesus; it’s Christ pulling Adam and Eve out of death by the wrists.
That's exactly what I need, what this world needs, to be yanked into life.
What a beautifully humbling image for the rescue Christ offers a helplessly fractured world. Stuck in what feels like an endless pandemic, divided like never before, splintered by race and confused about who we are - this is our “advanced” society, this is what we have to show for progress. We are so clueless about what makes for life and healing.
Reflecting on Holy Saturday, Eugene Peterson writes, ”When nothing we can do makes any difference and we are left standing around empty-handed and clueless, we are ready for God to create. When the conditions in which we live seem totally alien to life and salvation, we are reduced to waiting for God to do what only God can do, create."
Holy Saturday offers a necessary interlude between Good Friday and Easter, a day to sit in our helplessness, to relinquish all our well-intentioned efforts to fix the world, and hold vigil for a renewal that is beyond us, waiting for the One who can finally grab hold of us and save.