What do we do with this day, this Holy Saturday? We are still grieving. The reality of it all is beginning to sink in, beginning to be real. Jesus is gone, dying alone on some hill that we don’t even know. So, what do we do today? How do we pick up the pieces in the midst of our pain and despair and just go on with our lives? Oh, we 21st century believers know how the story ends. We’ve already jumped ahead and read the next chapter many, many times. (Don’t tell those that don’t read ahead, but it all works out in the end.)
And yet, we do ourselves no favors if we jump ahead to tomorrow. After all, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus rose on the third day, the THIRD day, as in one-two-three. The third day doesn’t happen without today. It must be important, right? But, oh, it’s just so painfully quiet. The sanctuary is dark, awaiting to be redressed for its coronation. The bells are quiet, hanging expectantly for tomorrow. And we still sit here draped in black with our Easter brights hanging there ready for us to don. What are we supposed to do today?
Tradition (and the older version of the Apostles’ Creed) holds that Jesus died, was buried, and descended into hell. So is that what this day is? Descent? Good grief, wasn’t the Cross low enough? The well-disputed claim is that Jesus descended into death, descended into hell, perhaps descended into Gehenna (Greek, Hebrew–Gehinnom, Rabbinical Hebrew–גהנום/גהנם), the State of ungodly souls. Why? Why after suffering the worst imaginable earthly death would Jesus descend into hell? Well, the disputed part is that Jesus, before being raised himself, descended to the depths of suffering and despair and redeemed it, recreated it. The sixth century hymnwriter, Venantius Fortunatus claimed that “hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today.” Why is that so out of bounds of what God can do? Don’t we believe that God is God of all? Or does it give us some sense of comfort to know that we are not the worst of the bunch, that there are always Judas’ and Brutus’ that have messed up a whole lot worse than any of us and so are destined to spend eternity on the lowest rungs of hell? But, oh, think about the power and grace and amazing love of a God who before the Divine Ascent into glory, descended into the depths of humanity and redeemed us all, perhaps wiped out the hell of each of our lives rung, by rung?
And, yet, again, we cannot leave it all to Christ to do. Just as we were called to pick up our cross yesterday, we are called to descend down into the depths, plunging into the unknown darkness, so that God can pick us up again, set us right, and show us a new journey. And so this day, we stand between, between death and life, between hell and heaven, between a world that does not understand and a God who even in the silence of this day has begun the redeeming work. In some ways, this is the holiest day of the week. How often do we stand with a full and honest view of the world and a glimpse of the holy and the sacred that is always and forever part of our lives? How often do we stand together and see ourselves as both betrayers and beloved children of God? How often do we stand in the depths of our human state and yet know that God will raise us up. This is a pure state of liminality, a state, as the Old English would say, “betwixt and between.” It is where we are called to be. It is the place of the fullness of humanity as it claims both human and divine. In the silence of this day, we stand with God. And we wait, we wait expectantly for resurrection, we wait for God to say us once again. It is where we should always be. We won’t though. We won’t be there. (Remember, we’ve had this problem before.) And maybe on some level, it’s too much for us to always be there, always be waiting expectantly for God. But at least we can remember what this day feels like as we stand between who we were and what we will be.
So, for today, keep expectant vigil. Do not jump ahead. We can only understand the glory of God when we see it behind the shadow of death. But, remember, shadows only exist because of Light.
“Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say:
“Hell today is vanquished, Heav’n is won today!”
Lo! the dead is living, God forevermore!
Him, their true Creator, all His works adore!
Age to age shall say.
Earth her joy confesses, clothing her for spring,
All fresh gifts returned with her returning King:
Bloom in every meadow, leaves on every bough,
Speak His sorrow ended, hail His triumph now.
Months in due succession, days of lengthening light,
Hours and passing moments praise Thee in their flight.
Brightness of the morning, sky and fields and sea,
Vanquisher of darkness, bring their praise to Thee.
Maker and Redeemer, life and health of all,
Thou from heaven beholding human nature’s fall,
Of the Father’s Godhead true and only Son,
Mankind to deliver, manhood didst put on.
Thou, of life the Author, death didst undergo,
Tread the path of darkness, saving strength to show;
Come, then True and Faithful, now fulfill Thy Word;
’Tis Thine own third morning; rise, O buried Lord!
Loose the souls long prisoned, bound with Satan’s chain;
All that now is fallen raise to life again;
Show Thy face in brightness, bid the nations see;
Bring again our daylight: day returns with Thee!