Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.
This is a very old quotation beginning an ancient sermon for Holy Saturday.
This day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday has the atmosphere of an in-between day, a liminal phase between where we are and what we desire. Today the sacraments are not celebrated (until tomorrow’s celebration of Easter begins with Vigil tonight), we feel an inertia, like our lethargy the day after the funeral of one we love.
Something strange is happening.
This day after the crucifixion is referred to in the Apostles Creed: Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell, rose again from the dead on the third day.”
This descent of Jesus to hell, or to the dead, is sometimes referred to in art (and theology) as the “Harrowing of Hell,” the day when Christ journeys to the depths and to the beginning of time to call all who have already died into the kingdom opened by his resurrection.
A few more quotations from this great homily lets the unknown author make the timeless point:
- He has gone to search for our first parent as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve.
- At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
- O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.
- For the sake of you, [Adam & Eve] who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
- My sleep [on Holy Saturday] will rouse you from your sleep in hell.
- Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.
- I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you.
- The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.
On this in-between day there is a lot happening, all of it outside our limited earthly perception, deeper than our awareness, and only visible to us in glimpses and tastes.
I’m remembering some other times in scripture when God seemed to be sleeping. Think of the boat when his disciples were panicking during the storm on the lake. I understand the fear in the disciples, but Jesus is surprised and after calming the storm wonders why they were afraid.
Jesus seems to be assuring us, saying to us: even if you think I’m not listening, I am here and I am active therefore there is no reason for you to be afraid.
Now that’s a message I need to hear.
When I struggle to experience Jesus in the midst of the routines and demands of my life this does not mean that Jesus is not present or that he is inactive or uninterested. Instead he is wise to remain hidden since if I did notice him at work, well, to put it bluntly, I’d probably stuff it up by trying to take control.
On this in-between day we experience the reality of our faith-context on earth. Holy Saturday silence reminds us that here on earth we are in a time of waiting for the time of fulfilment (to quote the funeral liturgy) when every tear will be wiped away.
Now also I am reminded that as we wait, we never wait alone. To continue the Dante Divine Comedy references of recent days he (Dante) when journeying to the dead (Hell), through the time of purification and waiting (Purgatory) to the eternal fulfilment (Paradise) was well accompanied at each stage: led by Virgil (through Hell), Beatrice (through Purgatory) and Bernard of Clairvaux (to Heaven).
This companionship on our journey is essential. This is the quality friendship we seek and need here on earth.
Last night I appreciated Bach’s Passion of St. John performed by the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Choir & Orchestra here in Christchurch. The chorus and chorale that conclude this work is an appropriate prayer for today:
Sleep well, and rest in God’s safekeeping, who makes and end of all our weeping. Sleep well, and on his breast sleep well. The grave that was prepared for Thee, from all our sorrows sets us free, and points the way to Heaven, and shuts the gates of hell. O Jesus, when I come to die, let angels bear my soul on high.
- Become aware of the circumstances in your life in which you find it difficult to experience the presence and action of Jesus. Now imagine that while you might be in a storm and unable to see Jesus, he is with you asleep in your boat and you have nothing to fear. Perhaps he is wanting to work with you without you trying to take control?
- Who do you treasure as your faith-filled companions on your life’s journey with Jesus?
- Because the only liturgy of the church today is tonight (Easter Vigil), I thought it best that we spend today focussing on the in-between day – then tomorrow’s Lectio will be the Easter gospel. So instead of the usual gospel Lectio you might appreciate the ancient homily for Holy Saturday in this video reflection format (just over five minutes). This homily is one of the readings in the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours for Holy Saturday.