Holy Saturday is the (largely ignored) day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But what does it tell us about our faith? The experience of Holy Saturday is more widespread the we realise and is more important than we often credit. This is my attempt to get us thinking about it.
This sermon was given at a reflective service on the evening of Good Friday. It was inspired by an excellent talk on Holy Saturday that I heard whilst at St John’s College, Nottingham. This was based on the gospel readings and cheerfully ducked the reading from 1 Peter, which seemed like an interesting challenge! It was greatly helped by Tom Wright’s commentary on 1 Peter in the For Everyone series.
It is the evening of Good Friday. We are deep into Holy Week. As a church, we have celebrated along with the crowds on Palm Sunday. We have experienced the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, we have reminded ourselves of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. And on Sunday we will celebrate. But, we skip too easily over tomorrow, over Holy Saturday. This is the day when Jesus was dead, when Jesus’ body lay alone in the tomb.
We have reminded ourselves of the emotions of Good Friday, but the emotions of Holy Saturday are ones that are significant for many of us, the dull ache after the initial sharpness. Tomorrow is a day that the gospel writers skip over, a day that is there in the few words of a final verse, if there at all.
Jesus is truly dead. Jesus is truly in the tomb. The disciple’s hope has turned to despair. The women are waiting. Waiting to return to their dead master’s body to complete the last service they think they can do for him. The men, meanwhile are not even doing that. The men are locking the doors, meeting in secret, fearfully waiting for their turn to be killed. Waiting in despair for their death.
But, this is not the full picture. The silence of the gospel writers is largely echoed by the silence of the rest of the New Testament. The death and resurrection of Jesus remind us of the pain and point us forward with joy and hope. But in this passage from Peter we catch a glimpse of Holy Saturday.
The passage we heard from Peter is confusing and difficult and complicated. And so are the passages from Luke. It’s just that the passages from Luke have been worn smoother by their familiarity. Good Friday is confusing and difficult and complicated. Jesus’ death and resurrection are confusing and complicated. Reality often is.
Peter is writing to Christians who are being persecuted, as still happens today, as happened in Kenya where almost 150 people were murdered, where Christians were martyred only yesterday. And Peter points out that this brings Christians who are being persecuted into the same situation as their suffering master, their saviour, who suffered. Who suffered, died, and then announced God’s victory over the powers and authorities, over the rulers and governors, over the spirits in the heavenly places who seek the destruction and frustration of God’s kingdom.
But, Peter tells us, using language that we find difficult to get a grip on, Jesus announced his victory to those very authorities, at the very moment when it looked like he was dead, buried and defeated. We still see the effects of these powers and authorities at work: in our lives, in the lives of our institutions, in the life of our country. But, their power is limited, broken.
Peter is drawing on popular traditions, popular understanding of how God is at work or might be at work to make an important point. To give those Christians hope. Not the familiar hope that we have something to look forward to, the hope of resurrection, the hope of the coming of God’s kingdom. As well as these hopes, Peter gives his hearers another source of hope. The hope in the midst of turmoil. The hope that the ark of baptism, afloat on a sea of pain and trouble, adrift in hurt, is what links us to our suffering saviour, who went through the deep waters of death for us. It is the hope that even through those deep waters of death and pain God is at work and is with us.
On Good Friday we remember the cross. On Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection. But, we skip over Holy Saturday, the day when the disciples waited and watched, were fearful and despairing, were wondering where it had all gone wrong and maybe, just maybe, prayed.
Peter’s point is the point that Holy Saturday makes. It is the point that in the midst of the fear and heartache and despair and pain God is at work. Heartache and heartbreak are real, pain and death are with us and there are no easy answers. There are no pious platitudes that take away the hurt.
Instead, there is a God, a human being, placed in a tomb. Dead and buried and yet still at work. The pain of the disciples was real. Our pain is real. We dwell in Holy Saturday at different times in our lives. We live with the hurt of the past, with the hurts of the present
Holy Saturday is when Christ descends into death, when he breaks the bonds of death and sets the captives free. Holy Saturday is when we are shown that God is at work even when things feel at their most hopeless. That is the hope and promise of Holy Saturday.