There is a liturgy for Holy Saturday in our prayer book, though it has fallen into disuse in the Church. We've resurrected it, so to speak, at St. Paul's. This morning, our associate rector, Ann Willms, led us in this simple service of meditation and psalms.
The lessons we used today are 1 Peter 3:17-22 and John 19:38-42. Ann gave this touching and very personal homily, and it brought home to me again why Holy Saturday matters, really matters. I commend it to you, and I hope you will join us tonight at 7:30 pm for the Great Vigil of Easter:
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Holy Saturday homily
By The Rev. Dr. Ann Willms
The world feels especially quiet this morning. After the unraveling and chaos of Jesus’ final hours yesterday, there is only silence. After the shouting of guards, the jostling of crowds, the wailing of women, the pounding of nails, and the exhausted groans of those who hurriedly carried the body to the tomb, all is silent now. Jesus is dead and buried. The Word-made-flesh has been silenced.
I was not prepared for the silence in the wake of my mother’s death. Her death was accompanied by the chaos of its suddenness. The shouting was my own, desperately trying to will her to stay with us. The jostling was of the paramedics hauling in their equipment. The wailing was from one of my daughters, the pounding of a fist in anger from the other. And the exhausted groans were of the funeral directors who came to take the body away just before midnight– to take my mother away.
When a death occurs, what happens next is often a blur, and yet also very methodical, as in John’s gospel. They procured and removed Jesus’ body. They wrapped it with spices in linen cloths. They carried it to the tomb in the garden and laid it there. Then they evidently went home, because the Sabbath was the next day and further work would be prohibited.
I wonder what that silence was like that night for Jesus’ mother Mary.
I wonder what the silence was like for Peter and Mary Magdalene. So much unspoken, and now, only silence. For me, the silence of my mother’s death was almost unbearable. I looked out that night and saw my mother’s car in my driveway and asked the sky, “Where are you?” Nothing came back.
We are here at the liminal place, the threshold of death, where it is only silence. In some ways it is a relief after witnessing the pain and torment Jesus suffered. We can catch our breath. But it also evokes a profound loneliness and sadness.
There is a tradition that has grown in the church from the 4th century that says that despite the silence the survivors experienced, Jesus was actually “at work” breaking down the gates of hell, preaching to all those who in life did not hear or accept the good news, until every resident soul was saved. This is the so-called “harrowing of hell.” This is what is alluded to in the First Letter of Peter reading we heard, about the gospel being proclaimed even to the dead. I have found this image comforting in years past, but this year I have wondered if it is simply another way for me to avoid the stark reality of Jesus’ being really dead. It is so much better to think of him in action somehow.
But to say that his body lay in the tomb while his soul wandered the underworld presumes a Greek dichotomy of body and soul that was incomprehensible to the Jewish understanding of human be-ing. We are one – body and life-breath and soul – one entity. So when we die, we die as a whole, yet are held in the memory of God. Jesus too died wholly, simply being with the dead as the dead.
And yet this, and only this, is how death was put to death. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has pointed out in his book Mysterium Paschale, Jesus’ solidarity with the powerless in death was his proclamation, silent though it was, that his work was completed. This truly being with the dead was his proclamation that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, not even death.
In a few moments we will depart, many of us to make preparations for tonight’s Easter Vigil. The busyness and movement and work with our hands will comfort us as these things often do after a death. They remind us that we are alive, and that life is precious. Let us allow our preparations to be held with the silent tomb in view, even as we look toward the certain joy of Easter.