Christ is risen!
That really makes all the difference. Or at least we know that it should. My fellow Protestants, as I’ve noted before, have a hard time really focusing in on just how Christ’s resurrection makes the difference.
We are so committed to preaching only “Christ and him crucified” that we find ourselves inextricably bound to Good Friday — even on Easter Sunday which is emphatically the opposite of the cross.
But if we have a hard time really focusing on Easter, it’s doubly so with Holy Saturday, the day in which Christ lay dead and buried.
Holy Saturday is, for Protestants, not so much a holy mystery as a complete bafflement.
Those of us who stand in worship on Sundays and recite the Apostles’ Creed should hear a hint of what Holy Saturday is about every single time: we say Christ “descended into Hell.”
On this the line of the Creed, many Protestants exercise their right to remain silent. Others cross their fingers.
Part of our trouble with this line is that we associate the word “Hell” with a place of eternal punishment. We should think instead of the Greek concept of “Hades”, or the Old Testament idea of “Sheol.” Ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures imagined a “place of the dead.” This was not the resurrected state of glory, but neither was it a state of punishment.
People had to be somewhere until that great gettin’ up morning
What Was Holy Saturday About?
It’s the Orthodox who have the clearest picture of this. They remind themselves of it in their iconography, as I’ve written before: on holy Saturday, Jesus is pictured as having descended to this place of the dead, Hades or Hell.
He has broken down its doors which lie at his feet now shaped like a cross.
There he finds all those who have gone before to death, including the very first, Adam and Eve. He reaches down to Adam and sometimes also to Eve, grabbing them by the wrist to raise them to life — by the wrist lest we get the impression that they have lifted themselves to life by their efforts.
It is all grace, the power of his resurrection as gift.
This year on holy Saturday, at nine in the morning I found myself at St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh. I knew the significance of the day already, but I did not know what this particular service would bring. As always seems to be the case much of the theology of the service is carried in the ancient hymns.
If you visit an Orthodox service for the first time you might find yourself thinking that all the hymns sound pretty much alike. This is mostly because they are in a very foreign musical style for Western ears. If a native of Greece were to land in a North American Protestant church he or she might well same say the same thing about contemporary praise songs.
The key is to come back a few times. Better still, have a service book or a printout of the day’s service with you. That way you can focus on the words rather than on the unfamiliar tunes and singing style. It grows on you — take my word for it.
On any given day one or two key themes will be emphasized. That might be a major event in the life of Jesus Christ, a major figure from Christian history who died that day, or even a theme associated with that the day of the week.
You can expect several of the hymns to explore that theme in depth. Each short him is a stanza of theological reflection and prayer growing out of the events being remembered. It is as if the day were a great gemstone, and the hymns pick up and turning it about slowly, inviting us to look deep inside through each cut face.
In the case of Holy Saturday I was struck by sequence of three hymns. They were not sung not our human perspective, nor that of Christ or the apostles. These three were sung by Hades itself, as if the place had come to life and was complaining about Jesus’ resurrection.
At the beginning of each one (transcribed here from the Lenten Triodion) Hades groans, and cries out in a hymn of grief.
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.
My power has been destroyed. I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep Him prisoner, and with Him I shall lose all those over whom I ruled. I held in my power the dead from all the ages; but see He is raising them all.
My dominion has been swallowed up; the Shepherd has been crucified and He has raised Adam. I am deprived of those whom once I ruled; in my strength I devoured them, but now I have cast them forth. He who was crucified has emptied the tombs; the power of death has no more strength.
And at the end of each of these three hymns the chorus, if you will, is
Glory to thy Cross, O Lord, and to thy resurrection.
On the one hand I love the fact that this ancient set of hymns is so whimsical. Hades is personified and given a voice. We hear it moaning and whining over its loss (poor thing).
And in the contrast we revel in Christ’s great victory. That victory is the main event of salvation: Death itself is conquered. The new life beginning now in Christ matters for eternity.
But more importantly, the picture it paints (exactly the same as the literal painting, the icon) is the answer we have been looking for.
Holy Saturday is not a blank on the calendar.
Holy Saturday is not an embarrassing pause between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Holy Saturday is one of the great moments of the drama of redemption: the power of resurrection is experienced first by those who have needed longest.
And note the sheer sweeping grandeur of Christ’s resurrection power. It is not something we only experience individualistically.
Christ came for the world, died and rose for the world.
That world is more than the present generation of believers. New life in Christ has reached even the dead. There is good news for all.
Your turn: I’d love to hear where Holy Saturday takes you in your own theological reflections. Let me know in the comments below.
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