When it comes to the Lenten calendar, Easter objectively steals the show. I mean, come on. Resurrection? Death, where is your sting? It doesn’t get any bigger than that. It is the focal point of every Jesus-centric belief system. Without it, Paul writes to the church of Corinth, “our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Essentially, Easter is the Christian Super Bowl.
There’s also, of course, Good Friday, another vitally important day. On this day, we celebrate Jesus’ willing suffering and death on the cross, taking onto Him the sins of the whole world. It’s a sobering day, as it should be. But the whole day is tempered by the knowledge that, in a little over 24 hours, the suffering will be over. We know how the story ends. Easter’s on its way.
Which makes it a little tricky to know, exactly, what to do with Saturday. Growing up in a nondenominational Christian church and household, I really didn’t give Saturday any thought. That’s largely because it’s a pretty static chunk of the story. Some traditions hold that Jesus was buried on the second day, so that’s something. But otherwise, the story of Saturday is: Jesus remains dead and buried and his followers are still bummed out. Great. How long until Easter?
If you’re like me, and you’ve never known what to do about Saturday, you might be surprised to learn that there is, actually, a name for it: “Holy Saturday.” Typically, Holy Saturday recognizes the second day of Jesus’ death, during which he remained in his tomb while his disciples and loved ones held a vigil outside. It’s a day that is characterized by mourning. Second century Christians would fast from sunset on Good Friday until dawn on Easter Sunday.
Today, in many liturgical churches, there’s no service or liturgy on Saturday; instead, they’ll wait until evening to celebrate the Easter Vigil Mass. These vigils begin the lights extinguished, the holy water drained and the tabernacle empty. Some traditions will actually perform a funeral service using the Epitaphios, an embroidered cloth that depicts a buried Christ. In Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American countries, sorrow takes a more explosive form: people will purchase large, ugly effigies of Judas Iscariot (Jesus’ betrayer), string them up on lamposts, attach firecrackers to them and light ‘em up. And yeah, some of them do have candy in them.
Holy Saturday is also, traditionally, a day of triumph. According to the Nicene Creed, Saturday is the day of the Harrowing of Hell, that spectacular event wherein Jesus descended into Hades, gathered all of the righteous people, and “opened Heaven’s gates for those that have gone before him,” in the words of the Catholic Catechism.
Now, not every Christian tradition holds to this piece of the Easter story; admittedly, the scriptural evidence for it is pretty sparse. But even those who don’t believe in the Harrowing still view Holy Saturday as a day of great expectation. There’s still the Resurrection, after all. Easter Vigil Masses will usually conclude with a baptism of new believers. Eastern Orthodox Christians place an icon portraying Jesus’ descent into hell at the front of their churches, where it will be honored and kissed for 40 days. Oh, and did I mention, some people blow up a statue of Judas?!? (Please Google it.)
So that’s how people celebrate Holy Saturday. For two thousand years, it has been a day where Christians have waited, expectantly, hungrily, but knowingly, for the glory that comes on Sunday morning.
And that’s what I can’t stop thinking about. We know. I mean, think about it: did Jesus’s disciples know about Easter? No. No, they didn’t. All they knew was that their rabbi, the one on whom they had pinned their hopes and expectations, had just died in a brutal and humiliating way, and now he was wrapped up inside of a tomb. No doubt they felt numb. Lost. Afraid for their lives. Was resurrection on their minds? Maybe. But they certainly wouldn’t have expected it. They didn’t know about the Harrowing of Hell, or the Ascension, or any of what was to come. They were waiting, yes, but not the Easter kind of waiting, the one where you already know the happily-ever-after ending. They were waiting like so many of us do: caught in the middle of our own lives, grappling with what just happened, completely oblivious to what is next.
Our Holy Saturday will never be like the disciples’ because we know about Easter. And yet, our lives may frequently look and feel more like that first Holy Saturday. Waiting. Lost. Not knowing. The one thing we may want from God, as Annie Dillard writes, is exactly “what He cannot do, will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel’s worth of sense into our days.” The real trick of faith is not waiting and expecting when you know; it is waiting and expecting when you do not.
And here is a lesson that perhaps only Holy Saturday teaches us. Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth and experienced complete and utter morality—including death. And yes, we like to jump past the tomb to the Resurrection, but I challenge us to linger here. In his book, Between Cross and Resurrection, theologian Alan E. Lewis argues that “the cross and especially the grave sum up scandalously all that we mean by and infer from incarnation: the Creator’s own embrace of utter humanness… From womb to tomb, God accepts—and therefore bids us also to accept—our dustlike transience and perishing.”
If that’s discouraging, it shouldn’t be. Holy Saturday meets us where we are most uncomfortable—in our waiting, unknowing and dying—and tells us, Your Creator has been there, too. Naturally, Easter Sunday is right around the corner, bringing with it the exquisite hope of the world. But before Sunday is Saturday, a difficult day, a frustrating day, but a profoundly beautiful day, the holiest of days, a day where God was at His most human, because like all of his creatures, He waited, too.