Of Holy Saturday

As I noted in the post with today’s hymn, we Episcopalians tend to skip past Holy Saturday. We go right from death to resurrection light in the Great Vigil. That makes some sense, given Western Christianity’s fixation on substitionary penal atonement theory. In other words, if you believe your salvation to be accomplished solely through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, then you can skip ahead as soon as that’s been commemorated.

In my view, that’s a narrow view of salvation. I said as much in my Palm Sunday sermon this year. It makes a nice bumper sticker, but it only tells part of the story. The funny thing is, once you start reading the New Testament with open eyes, it’s clear that the scriptures themselves tell a much more complex version of the economy of our salvation.

Eastern Christianity has tended to be oriented toward the harrowing of hell as the principal mechanism of our salvation. You can find remnants of this most visibly in the liturgy of the Great Vigil of Easter, which is incomprehensible without the notion of the crossing of death into life brought through Christ’s descent to the dead. But since too many people no longer spend much time thinking about hell, it makes sense that we’d ignore this one.

My antidote to this is the Liturgy of the Day for Holy Saturday. To do what’s in the prayer book takes less than ten minutes, but it speaks volumes. At the parish I serve, we offer this service at 9 a.m. on Holy Saturday. The customary congregation consists of the clergy, the Altar Guild, and the acolytes who have arrived a few minutes early for our rehearsal of the Great Vigil. Though everyone’s in a rush to prepare for Easter, the obstructionist rector makes us all slow down for a few minutes for one more bit of hard truth.

Jesus died, and not just for you and me. He died for the whole world. He descended to the dead and broke open the gates of hell to free those held in captivity. He trampled down death so that the whole world might have eternal life.

Here’s how the East understands Holy (or Great) Saturday.

Great Saturday is the day of the pre-eminent rest. Christ observes a Sabbath rest in the tomb. His rest, however, is not inactivity but the fulfillment of the divine will and plan for the salvation of humankind and the cosmos. He who brought all things into being, makes all things new. The re-creation of the world has been accomplished once and for all. Through His incarnation, life and death Christ has filled all things with Himself He has opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the author of life would be dominated by corruption.

Isn’t that cool? Our collect for the day has this idea too:

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I encourage you to check out the full description of the rich customs and vivid liturgies of Great Saturday. I think if we could import some of this, we’d be stronger as Christians and our Easter would be that much more joy-filled.

I leave you with these hymns for the day, the Hymns from the Anoi.

Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that He may give life to those that in their tombs lie dead. Come, let us look today on the Son of Judah as He sleeps, and with the prophet let us cry aloud to Him: Thou hast lain down, Thou hast slept as a lion; who shall awaken Thee, O King? But of Thine own free will do Thou rise up, who willingly dost give Thyself for us. O Lord, glory to Thee.

Today a tomb holds Him who holds the creation in the hollow of His hand; a stone covers Him who covered the heavens with glory. Life sleeps and hell trembles, and Adam is set free from his bonds. Glory to Thy dispensation, whereby Thou hast accomplished all things, granting us an eternal Sabbath, Thy most holy Resurrection from the dead.

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