Nobody Wants To Come To Holy Saturday – A Sermon On Matthew 27:57-66

Icon of the Harrowing of Hell/Resurrection
Jesus descends into hell, breaking down the gates, and releasing Adam and Eve.
Icon of the Harrowing of Hell/Resurrection
Jesus descends into hell, breaking down the gates, and releasing Adam and Eve. “Resurrection” by bobosh_t is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

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.

8 comments

  1. Michael, Holy Saturday is my favorite – it was/is the analogy for part of my story – it is the in between – it is where the Spirit is moving among darkness and chaos, etc. You have to live in Holy Saturday before you can rejoice in Easter – Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Mike, Thank you. That is such a different line of
    thought…compelling; frightening. I have, for the last decade or so,
    thought of this Saturday as a time of waiting for the light; a time of
    anticipation, of expectation.

    But I see some Holy Saturdays as you describe, both in my past and in my
    future. Frightening….yet a peace that knows this too shall pass and
    all shall be well; all manner of things shall be well.

    Thank you for your insights. thank you for sharing.

    Tomorrow is coming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grace, I’m glad the sermon offered you an other view. I agree it’s a time of waiting and expectation but my experience of Holy Saturday is that it’s also a very difficult time. And also a very real part of all our lives.

      It’s so good to hear from you. I hope you all are well and had a blessed Holy Week and a joyful Easter and with an abundance of life.

      Peace be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

  3. In our tradition Holy Saturday is a day of private reflection. The only thing going on at the church is the blessing of the food baskets at noon. This was very interesting for me. I can fill in those blanks with lots of events, heartaches, and periods of waiting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for these reflections. The importance of the time between what was and what will be is something few of us have much tolerance or patience for in this world. In December of last year, my husband of nearly 31 years passed away unexpectedly and left me, our six children (3 under 18 still), his beloved congregation, and many friends and family behind. It has been nearly unbearable grief at times, but for the message of the Gospel so clearly demonstrated on Good Friday through to Resurrection Sunday. You rightly say that we want to rush from the sorrow to the glory, rather than sit with the in-between and feel the deep pain of grief and loss, but somehow in the Father’s work of redemption of the brokenness brought to creation through sin, the joy of Resurrection necessitates the pain of Good Friday. “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. The in-between invites us, even compels us, into stillness and in so doing, the ability to know how deep the Father’s love for us truly is.

    Thank you for your ministry and may God continue to richly bless you through His Spirit.

    Like

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