Holy Saturday: The Earth Holds its Breath

There is a lot going on during Holy Week. On what we call Maundy Thursday we remember the installation of the Eucharist and Jesus’ command that we love one another as seen in his washing of the disciple’s feet. The Maundy Thursday does not service does not end. Jesus’s ministry does not stop, but like the disciples we flee into the night. Good Friday picks up where Thursday left off. Jesus has been arrested, and we walk with him through his trial and passion.  Most Anglican churches will move along to the Easter vigil in which we tell whole of God’s redemptive story from beginning to end climaxing with the acclamation that Christ is risen.

Sadly many churches have lost sight of a little service nestled between Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. It is called Holy Saturday. It is a gem of a service that reflects on the time between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The prayer for Holy Saturday reminds us that Jesus’ body was laid in the tomb and took its rest on the Sabbath.

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; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In this prayer we are called to wait with Jesus for the coming of the third day. It asks us to trust Jesus in the darkest trials to know that something good awaits us. But if we reflect for a moment about the radical difference between how Jesus experienced Holy Saturday and how the disciples experienced it, we begin to realize how staggering the prayer is and the supreme challenge that it poses. 

At this point in the gospel story there is nothing left for the disciples to do. There are no more acts of faith to perform. All that remains is the waiting.  Holy Saturday reminds us, as the sabbath itself does, that for all our activity our hope is not in the things that we do. Our hope in the God who created all and instituted the day of rest to remind us of our limits.

The last month has been a world wind. Churches have gone online and found a thousand different ways to minister. But the church will not endure because we listened to all the podcasts and online Zoom sessions about how to pastor during a pandemic. The church will survive because God will sustain it when we have reached the end of our ropes. Holy Saturday reminds the church to pause. 

The readings from Holy Saturday are filled with questions about death. Job 14:1–14, the Old Testament reading, asks this question, “If someone dies, will they live again?”  Psalm 88, also appointed on this morning, ponders “Do you show wonders to the dead or shall the dead rise up and praise you? Is your loving-kindness declared in the grave, your faithfulness in destruction?” The answer to these questions is yes, but the psalmist is not so confident.

The readings reveal our anxieties about the limits of God’s power. In times of trauma we are tempted to wonder if the problem is too big for God. The disciples must have asked this question on Holy Saturday. Was the crucifixion of Jesus a tragedy so all encompassing that there was no future? Holy Saturday is our pause to remember the depth of the problem so that we might celebrate the extent of God’s victory. Death is no small thing; it the monster that eats everything. Everyone who survives COVID19 will die of something else. The question posed in the readings of Holy Saturday is what will God do about it.

The good news of Holy Saturday is not that the disciples waited with faith. They did not and we do not. There are moments when the traumas in our lives are too much and we are overcome with despair. Sometimes all of this is just too much for us. The good news of Holy Saturday is that Son of God was never in doubt about what followed his Sabbath. Jesus was not in the grave hoping that things would turn out okay. Jesus reigned even when we was at rest. Whether we wait in hope or despair what matters is that we wait and then wonder of God’s victory. 

Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.