Today is Holy Saturday. It is the quiet solemn day between Good Friday, when we commemorate the death of Jesus through crucifixion, and Easter Sunday. Around the world, this day has varied titles for Christians. The Orthodox, who will not celebrate Easter until next Sunday, call this day Holy and Great Saturday. In Brazil and Portugal today is Hallelujah Saturday. Our siblings in the Philippines call today Black Saturday. The significance of this Sabbath day should not be lost on us.
According to some of the Apostolic traditions, today is the day when Jesus descended into hell and liberated those who were held captive by Satan. (You might remember the story of Lazarus regarding this setting in Luke 16:19-31.) By this tradition, while the living were awaiting the resurrection, Jesus was liberating those who had already died. They were the first to experience resurrection. It makes for a good story. Jesus as the Christus Victor!
During this time when the shadow of COVID-19 is tall and enduring, there are some truths that can emerge from the tradition of this day. This, our last day of Lent, offers to us a picture of the enduring hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.
When I served, First UMC of San Diego, we celebrated the Easter Vigil. That service, which began at sunset on Holy Saturday (night before Easter), started in the memorial garden of the church; among those whose remains lie in repose. We make a quiet procession into the sanctuary where, over a nearly two-hour worship service, we proclaim the Easter story, shout “hallelujah”, confirm our confirmands, baptize those who had been prepared, and shared in Holy Communion. We learn that hope begins when all appears to be lost. Our proclamation of Easter began among the dead.
Today is traditionally the Sabbath. A day of rest. Following the harrowing events of Good Friday, disciples, mothers, and friends returned to their homes. It was a day of no work. In the quiet emptiness of that day, sorrow and lament could fully blossom. Easter and lent are matters of contrast. The darkest of days, Holy Saturday, afforded time to explore the texture and depth of that sorrow. The darkest day sits next to the brightest day. We discover that joy is not the denial of sorrow but that it flourishes in lament. In our world of immediate gratification and addiction to happiness, we are now forced to confront suffering, death, and dying in new ways that turn our eyes toward joy that persists in the darkest of hours.
During our traditional Easter celebrations, we gather, we sing, we smell the lilies, and enjoin all the wondrous signs of Jesus’ resurrection. It is glorious. For hundreds of years in the earliest days of our faith, we gathered in secret and in homes. We used signs like “the fish” (Icthus) and “the butterfly” to mark our secret meeting spaces. No buildings. No flowers.
For many, we contemplate tomorrow with none of our usual settings. It grieves us that we cannot gather as we normally do. Holy Saturday reminds us that our confidence in Jesus’ resurrection does not DEPEND on those these things. We gather perhaps alone or with those that we live with. We watch live streaming. We quietly cultivate the fertile soil of our hearts for the seed of Jesus’ new life. We find that Easter must happen in us before it can happen around us.
This day let us pray for the dying and their loved ones. Let us pray for our government and its leaders, as we are commanded to do so. Let us pray for those who have lost jobs and livelihoods. Let us pray for those bright minds, scientists, and other great thinkers as they labor to find therapies and vaccines. Let us pray for all those engaged in caring for the sick and the dying.
Let us also pray for a church that, as the body of Christ, lay in repose. Quiet. Reflecting. Lamenting. Joyful. Hopeful. Confident. May we this night proclaim that Christ has defeated death and rise with Him in glorious light. Easter does not wait until we enter our buildings once again. Easter happens in the darkest of hours. Holy Saturday reminds us that Christ is the light in our darkness. May our words and deeds of resurrection be a light to the world.