Nobody wants to come to Holy Saturday. Look around. Very few show up on this day, and most probably do not even know there is a liturgy for this day. I don’t blame them, I understand.
Not much happens today. The liturgy is short, maybe twenty minutes. The church is empty and bare. There are no decorations, colors, or candles. We don’t sing today. And there’s no food, no bread and wine. The body and life are missing today. Gone.
I suspect Mary Magdalene and the other Mary didn’t want to come to this day either. Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body of Jesus in a clean linen cloth, laid it in the tomb, rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and went away. The body and life are missing today. Gone. And now Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sit “opposite the tomb” (Matthew 27:57-66).
You probably know what that’s like. What do you imagine they’re feeling? Are they talking or are they silent? If they are talking, about what?
Nobody wants to come to Holy Saturday, and yet, every one of us will even if we never come to church on this day. I’m talking about the Holy Saturday of life.
Holy Saturday is the day after. It’s the day after your life completely changed, and not in a way you wanted. It’s the day after she or he died. It’s the day after the relationship ended. It’s the day after your plans and hopes where shattered. It’s the day after the biggest mistake of your life. It’s the day after the betrayal. It’s the day after the loss.
Holy Saturday is the day when we sit with our loss and realize again and again that it really did happen. This is not a nightmare from which we will awaken. This is our new reality, and it comes with all sorts of feelings: grief, sorrow, hurt, fear, despair, anger, guilt, shame. It usually leaves us tearful and exhausted. And I wish I could tell you that it’s only one day, but I can’t. You know as well as I that it’s not.
Holy Saturday is an in between day. What was is no longer and what will be is not yet. We not only wonder about what is next but if there will even be a next. Here’s how Job puts it: “If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come” (Job 14:1-14). Holy Saturday is a day of ambiguity and not knowing. It’s a day of waiting and “sitting opposite the tomb.”
What is your Holy Saturday today? What tombs are you sitting opposite of? How are you experiencing your Holy Saturday? What are you feeling? And what do you need to do with this day?
I think we’d all like to jump from Good Friday to Easter. That’s pretty much what Holy Week has become for most people. Jesus is dead and then suddenly alive. Great joy has suddenly replaced great sorrow. (Alexander Schmemann) Nobody wants to come to Holy Saturday.
I used to think that my grief and losses would be replaced by joy and new life or that they would somehow be changed into joy and new life. But neither of those has happened. Easter does not replace Good Friday, and Good Friday does not turn into Easter.
I don’t think the losses and griefs of our Good Fridays ever go away, diminish, or no longer touch us. They’re always with us. Instead, I think that Easter, new life, grows around and becomes larger than the Good Friday losses. We are no longer chained to or imprisoned by our losses. We learn to live again, not apart from our losses but with them. That’s what’s happening in the Holy Saturday of life.
The Church describes that metaphorically by saying that Holy Saturday is the day Jesus “descended into hell.” Look it up, it’s on page 53 in the Book of Common Prayer. Be careful here. Hell in this context is not about punishment or a moral judgment. It’s simply the place of the dead, the place that holds all our losses.
Let me read you something about this day from the Eastern Orthodox tradition:
Today hell groans and cries aloud: “It had been better for me, had I not accepted Mary’s Son, for He has come to me and destroyed my power; He has shattered the gates of brass, and as God he has raised up the souls that once I held.”“Vesperal Divine Liturgy for Holy and Great Saturday,” The Complete Services of Holy Week and Pascha (Holy Transfiguration Monastery: Brookline, MA, 1986-2007), 255.
Whatever has brought you to this day, whatever your Holy Saturday might be, that is your hope and the promise being made to you this day.