Holy Saturday: once more we experience the silence and stillness of this ‘time out of time’ when earth awaits the Resurrection. It seems so bleak: there are no sacraments, no light, no warmth, and we can do nothing. It is as though life itself were suspended; yet it isn’t. This is the day when God alone acts, powerfully, redemptively. This is the day of God’s unseen activity, the Harrowing of Hell. Tonight the darkness will be shattered for ever and heaven and earth unite in one triumphant blaze of glory and new life. Christ will rise, never to die again. We shall be one with the events of two thousand years ago and all our sin and shame will be seen in a new guise as ‘a happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam,’ and we shall know ourselves loved as never before. Our Redeemer will be with us.
Once again we have reached Holy Saturday, a day of great silence and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. Our churches are empty of colour and warmth, there are no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, and we experience to the full what life without Christ is like. For a monk or nun, indeed for most of us, I suspect, life is largely lived in ‘Holy Saturday mode’ as we go on, as best we can, waiting, waiting, waiting for God to act. Today, when the threat of war hangs heavy over the world, the illusion of control with which we try to comfort ourselves at other times is revealed for what it is: sheer illusion. Most of the big things that affect our lives are entirely beyond our control, but we ignore that. We like to think that we are in charge — only we aren’t, really. Does that mean we are mere puppets, eking out our existence in bitterness of soul, without hope? Surely not. God created us in his own image and likeness, and there is in each of us something that reflects, uniquely and beautifully, our Creator. We are called to co-operate with him, to allow grace to transform us, but we waste so much time trying to resist, to do things our own way. It takes Holy Saturday to jerk us back into reality.
The ancient tradition of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to release those who had died before his coming is a wonderful reminder of the infinite mercy and tenderness of God. When we cannot act, he does — with limitless power. Today is a day when we are invited to think about this unseen activity of God and the restoration to humankind of its original dignity and freedom in Christ. We do not know what the future holds, either for us as individuals or as a world, but of this we can be sure. In the bleakness of Holy Saturday, as night pases into dawn, something extraordinary will happen. We shall be one with the events of two thousand years ago. Christ will rise, never to die again; and we shall rise with him. All the sin and shame with which we have marred his features in us will be wiped away. We shall sing of the ‘happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam’ which gave us such and so great a Redeemer, and all creation will respond with its own great ‘alleluia’. This is our Easter faith, and already it casts its light upon the world.
Holy Saturday: the day out of time when, in silence and stillness, earth awaits the Resurrection; the day without sacraments, when our churches are cold and bleak and we know what it is to be without Christ in our lives; the day when we do nothing because God does all. And then comes the night, brilliant with light and warmth, when Christ breaks the bonds of death, and everything is changed for ever.
Here are two posts from former years which say something about Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell:
Holy Saturday is a day out of time, a day for doing nothing, because God is acting — powerfully, incomprehensibly, mercifully — while the earth remains silent and still, awaiting the Resurrection. In the past, I’ve said that the whole of monastic life is lived in Holy Saturday mode (see here or here) and I was thinking principally about the fact that we are suspended between heaven and hell, going on as best we can, placing all our hope in the God we cannot see; but I begin to think that the connection is both simpler and more mysterious. Holy Saturday is traditionally associated with the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to free the spirits of the just who had died before his coming. It is a day of mercy, and all of us live by the mercy of God. That is what we really mean by Holy Saturday as a day of waiting, a day when we await the mercy of God.
The tenderness of this illustration, as Christ takes the spirits in Sheol by the hand and leads them out into the light, would melt the heart of anyone. It makes me wonder why we are sometimes so anxious to consign others to hell. Don’t we all long for God to be merciful to us? Haven’t we enough sins of our own to worry about, without condemning those of others? Perhaps, today, we could spend a moment or two thinking about how we judge others, and the harm we sometimes do by imprisoning them in our judgement of them.
Tonight, during the Exsultet, we’ll sing of the felix culpa, the happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam, which brought us such and so great a Redeemer. It is theology trembling on the brink of heresy, breath-taking in its conception of God’s wisdom and mercy. Holy Saturday reminds us that sin and death are no barrier to God. He will lead us into everlasting light, if we will but let him.
Note on the illustration
Unknown : Initial D: The Harrowing of Hell, mid-1200s, Tempera colours, gold leaf, and ink on parchment Leaf: 23.5 x 16.5 cm (9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 14, fol. 110 Used by permission under the Open Content Scheme, with thanks.
There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday — a day out of time — that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.
Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.
Note on the illustration
Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, York; written about 1490, Tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101, fol. 82v
Saturdays in Lent have a quality all their own: slightly bleak, especially if the weather is bad, and somehow not particularly memorable. A lot of life is like that, if we’re honest, but I find St Benedict’s call to live lives of ‘surpassing purity during this holy season’ and his emphasis on joy quite striking (RB 49). Like most nuns, I love the stripping away to essentials of both liturgy and daily life at this time. The chant is unaccompanied, the food very plain (we fast every day except Sunday), and we try, within the limits of our budget and personal talents, to give more to others than we are able to do at other times of year. It reminds me that most of our monastic life is hidden and both much more ordinary than many people assume and perhaps a little more extraordinary at the same time. It has something of the transforming quality of Holy Saturday/Easter Night about it. My favourite quotation from the Desert Fathers captures the essence of this transformation: ‘the monastic cell is like Easter Night, it sees Christ rising.’
That is our prayer for ourselves and for all who read this blog at any time of year.
An early Christian writer once described Holy Saturday as being a day of great quietness and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. It is a day out of time — no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no warmth or colour to assuage the interior desolation, no activity to distract us or give us a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent.
Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the Cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. And just as when Jesus was laid in the tomb he entered into a world outside time and an activity beyond our apprehension — the harrowing of hell — so we too, with our Holy Saturday faith, enter into a dimension of reality we cannot truly comprehend, a kind of little death that prepares us for the death we shall all one day undergo. In this state we can do nothing; God must do everything.
Holy Saturday prepares us for the newness of life that comes with the Resurrection. The silence, the stillness, the apparent inaction of this day out of time — it all sounds rather monastic, doesn’t it? Perhaps that is why I find it my natural environment, so to say. Monastic life has been described as a continuous Lent, a continuous preparation for Christ’s coming at Easter. One of the first monks expressed this very beautifully, ‘A monk’s cell is like Easter night: it sees Christ rising.’ That is a striking phrase, made the more striking by remembering that the monk’s cell is, first and foremost, the cell of his heart. Today, each of us must prepare to receive the Risen Christ into our hearts; and the only way we can do that is by allowing God to do all the doing.
Tonight we begin the most important part of the Christian year. The whole week has been full of surprises, stretching our understanding of time and space. Now, as we go deeper into the mystery, the liturgy is a sure guide to what would otherwise be overwhelming. The three days are one; just as the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ are one salvific act; and we must take our part in each. We must taste the bitterness of our own sinfulness if we are to relish the sweetness of our salvation. We must make the journey from death to life.
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper will remind us of Christ’s gift of himself in the Eucharist and in the Priesthood. It will remind us, too, that the priesthood of the New Testament is one of loving and humble service. We shall accompany Christ to Gethsemane, kneel beside him during the dark hours of doubt and dread; feel the betrayer’s kiss on our cheek; endure the long, long night of questioning and abuse.
On Good Friday the liturgy will revert to a very simple, ancient form. We are in a world without light, without sacraments. There is only the bleak narrative of the Passion and the prayers, piling up like the waves of the sea. As we creep towards the Cross we carry with us the burden of a lifetime’s sin, sin that has been nailed to that Cross and forgiven with the death of our Saviour.
Then comes Holy Saturday, empty, still, silent as the tomb. We are waiting, waiting. On Easter Eve, when the new fire is kindled, we share in the explosion of life and joy that is the Resurrection. The Exsultet dares to say what we cannot: ‘O happy fault . . . O necessary sin of Adam’. Only one word can express our joy, and throughout the Easter season we shall sing it over and over again, ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’
May your celebration of the sacred Triduum be blessed. We shall keep you in our prayers.