Holy Saturday

There’s this odd moment in the midst of our Easter celebrations, you might call it ‘Holy Saturday’ or just that day in the long weekend that doesn’t have a name.

It’s that strange day caught between Friday’s sorrow and Sunday’s joy, where ‘nothing happened.’ Or maybe, an awful lot happened.

There are I think three helpful angles to reflect on this day that scripture doesn’t really mention—though as we’ll see in the second of these, it does hint in the direction of from the first page of the Bible.

The Descent to the Dead

In the creed we read that Jesus descended into Hell, and whatever he did there is usually told as the events of Saturday. Having read Matt Emerson’s helpful book, He Descended to the Dead, this is having a larger place in my thinking about the cross and resurrection than it used to.

When the creed says ‘Hell’ we picture either the red fiery place with pitchfork wielding devils of medieval art and modern cartoons, or the more Biblical ‘lake of fire’ into which those same devils are thrown for judgement. When the creed was written in Latin the word infernus that is translated ‘hell’ didn’t carry the same resonances it does today, not least because of Dante’s Inferno. Instead, it more simply meant the place of the dead, the abyss, the under-the-earth place.

A modern translation of the creed would probably better read, he descended to the dead. Which might seem redundant since it also speaks of his burial, but that isn’t what was meant. Instead, Jesus after his death went to where the dead go. In Jewish conception there was a place under the earth that was divided into the righteous and unrighteous dead, the righteous dead dwelling in Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16). Jesus went there, gathered the chains, and led a triumph of those captured by death free to a place he calls paradise (Luke 23)—and the theologians call ‘the intermediate state.’

He also preached to some fallen angels, but maybe we’ll leave that one there (1 Peter 3).

Jesus freed the dead from death to lead them to where they wait for resurrection—in his presence. Which is probably what most of us mean when we say ‘heaven,’ though it’s always worth remembering that this isn’t the glory the Bible promises us: resurrected bodies and a resurrected earth are better still.

On Holy Saturday we can remember that Christ ended death’s dominion over us, even though we die. Sunday’s glory speaks of the better that is to come in our own resurrection.

The Last Sabbath

Another way of framing Holy Saturday is as a Sabbath. Which is literally was, we read that he was taken down and quickly buried to be buried before the Sabbath, and its on the next day that women come to anoint his body with perfume (Mark 16).

It’s a theological Sabbath too. At the start of John’s gospel, he evokes the start of the Bible, “In the beginning” (John 1), and then as Jesus dies, he declares that creation ended, “It is finished” (John 19). In the very next sentence, we are told of the great Sabbath for the Passover—the Sabbath was the goal of the old creation, and the sign of the Mosaic covenant.

On Saturday, what did Jesus do? His labours over, he rested, for it was the Sabbath. God rested.

This is one of John’s themes that he builds to with his use of the numbers 6 and 7. Jesus’ work was to renew creation.

L. Miles Morales points out, in his excellent book Exodus Old and New, that John refers to Easter Sunday as the first day of the week and then subtly hints it might also be the eighth (John 20). By which he means the first day of a new week, and a new week of a new creation—much like circumcision was performed on the eighth day to gift Abraham’s new identity, Thomas sees Jesus for himself on an eighth day.

The first day is not the first day of the old creation but the eighth day—that is, the new first day after the final seventh day of the old creation.

After all, God finishes creating on the sixth day, rests on the seventh, and then creation ‘begins’ on the eighth. He declares it finished on Friday. Rests on Saturday. Creation begins with its firstfruits—the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1)—on Sunday.

God rested, and he’s never stopped. He started the new creation, the Sabbath without end, where chaos never reigns.

On Holy Saturday we declare that the new creation is coming, an age of true rest.

Our Experience

And, strangely enough, Holy Saturday is the time between the times. It’s waiting. It’s Psalm 23 between Friday’s 22 and Sunday’s 24—the wandering in the dark valley while a table is laid (though, its worth noting that those three psalms are part of a set of five {19-24}, not three, and Psalm 22 is the centre of them).

Saturday is a feeling like Advent, or the fourth book of the Psalms. It’s the moment before exaltation, when everything seems lost one moment, and is merely waiting out the rain shower the next. It’s the intake of breath that you don’t know whether it will be exhaled as a laugh or a sob, it’s the question that hangs at the end of the play—is this a tragedy or a comedy? It’s grief, it’s hope, it’s the Between.

It is, in other words, the Christian life.

Photo by Francesco Baldan on Unsplash

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