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  • Writer's pictureRevShirleyMurphy

Holy Saturday – A time of Waiting

The observance of Holy Saturday has been part of the Christian tradition since the early days of the church. The day has its roots in the Jewish tradition of the Sabbath, which is observed from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. It is also associated with the ancient Jewish practice of waiting for the Messiah.

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Have you ever found yourself in complete, total darkness? The kind where you can't see your hand in front of your face? It can be a terrifying place.

My parents used to tell me about one particular Saturday when I was about 4 years old. They were sitting in the kitchen when they heard a stifled cry. They couldn't tell where it was coming from. And they panicked. It sounds like Shirley! Where is she? What's wrong? They searched the bedrooms upstairs, the closets, the garden, my bedroom nothing. They couldn't find me. Finally, my Dad tracked the cries to the window in his office where work was being done, so basically the window was just a frame as the workmen had not finished putting the window in. Me being naughty and also trying to be smart and hiding from my brother ended up there and the room was dark and had a tight door which shut. Apparently, it was so dark in this little space that I was unable to move, powerless. The door was jammed or latched or something, and I was stuck in this room in total darkness. Not only that in fear I had tried to jump out of the window and ended up on the floor and had broken my chin ( where I still have a scar) My dad had to yank the door open and pull me out. The strange thing is, I have very little memory of this. I think my mind blacked out the memory of being stuck in a place of utter darkness and powerlessness.

Have you ever been in a place like that? We all have. Maybe you haven't been stuck in a dark room, but sometimes it sure can feel like it. It is the darkness of the loss of someone dear to us, whose absence we fear we will never be able to deal with. The darkness of a terrifying diagnosis. The darkness of not knowing where a child of ours is. The darkness of a shattering reality that we had no idea was coming our way.

On Holy Saturday, Christians remember that while his dead body was lying in a tomb, Jesus’ soul “descended into the dead,” as the Apostle’s Creed says. It’s traditionally known as the “harrowing of hell,” when Jesus announced salvation to all the righteous who had died before his coming.

It is a mystery for which we know very little, but the Bible, does say something and gives us some guidance in this. And in our Creeds, which summarize the teaching of the Bible, we speak of this mysterious time. We say that we believe that Jesus, “was crucified, dead, and buried, He descended into hell.”

What does this mean? Where was Jesus on that first Holy Saturday as the disciples gathered, not knowing the joy yet of the Resurrection. Remember that the disciples on that first Holy Saturday were in shock and sorrow over the crucifixion of their friend and Lord and were hiding behind closed doors in fear for their lives and distressed about their unfaithfulness to Jesus.

Pearson, an Anglican theologian in the 17th century, wrote a book on the Creed that is still seen as a classic – it summarizes the Church’s teaching over the centuries. He wrote about 30 pages with detailed notes about this statement in the creed, “He descended into hell.”

We know because of the Resurrection that Jesus did fulfill his true mission: saving his people (ALL sinners) from their greatest oppressors (the dominions of sin and death). He then appeared to his disciples and reassured them of his promises. These same disciples went on to found his Church, and many performed their own miracles in his name.

Just like the disciples on Holy Saturday, we live in a space between God’s giving of his promises and their fulfillment, and that can leave us confused. As the disciples waited for the resurrection, so we too wait for Jesus’ return, God’s final judgment, and the remaking of heaven and earth. We wait for conclusive proof that what we believe in will come to pass, and we can find ourselves in situations that challenge those beliefs to their core. Those moments can create questions, and they can create doubt.

Pope Benedict XVI once wrote a series of meditations on Holy Saturday. In one of them he says this: “The death of God in Jesus Christ is at the same time the expression of God’s radical solidarity with us. The most obscure mystery of the faith is at the same time the clearest sign of a hope without end. And what is more: only through the failure of Holy Friday, only through the silence of death of Holy Saturday, were the disciples able to be led to an understanding of all that Jesus truly was and all that his message truly meant. God had to die for them so that God could truly live in them. The image they had formed of God, within which they had tried to hold God down, had to be destroyed so that through the rubble of the ruined house they might see the sky—God who remains, always, the infinitely greater.”

In the stripping away of the felt presence of God today, our limited conceptions of God are also stripped away. The disciples had to lose the God they had known outside of themselves in Jesus in order to find the God within them, and also the God utterly beyond anything they could think or imagine. Only through absence and loss at one level could they break through to God at a new level.

Today is also traditionally known as the Great Sabbath. In the creation story, after six days of work, God rests on the seventh. And Jesus, working to bring about the new creation, on the sixth day finishes his work—“It is finished”—and on the seventh he rests—in the tomb, in death.

And so tradition has it that while we who are alive wait and feel Christ’s absence today, he descends to the dead, descends into hell, and frees the captives—and so the only reason anyone remains in hell is because they choose to be there, because Christ has broken open the doors and flung wide the gates. And so there is now no place, this side of the grave or beyond, to which the light of the Gospel does not extend.

And so today, dark and somber and empty as it is, is shot through with hope. Hope that Christ is tirelessly working beneath the surface of things. Hope that there is now nowhere that he is not, even in the absence, even in the darkness, even in our brokenness and despair and confusion. And beyond hope, a call to action go to hell. Go to hell! Enter the devastation of your neighbor, take their hand, and help pull them out. Go to the hurting and broken places, for together with Christ we form only one Person, one Body, and from him, and from each another, we can never be separated. And so, in the despair and emptiness of this day, look through the rubble, take the hand of your sisters and your brothers, help lift each other up, and together, look at the open sky.

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