Between the emotional summits of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there’s a valley of quiet, a time during which Jesus, long the center of public scrutiny, was hidden inside a tomb.
The Rev. Paul Stephens, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo, referred to the ancient prayer of the church to describe it. “Something strange is happening. There is a great silence on earth today … God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”
Holy Saturday is a day of silence, perhaps even sadness, and 2,000 years after it happened Christians aren’t always sure what to make of it.
“In recent history there’s been kind of a vacuum, even within the Methodist Church’s liturgy,” said the Rev. Andy Stoddard, pastor of Ripley First United Methodist Church.
“Maundy Thursday has always been one of the most powerful services of the year for me but, unfortunately, after Good Friday we sometimes act as though everything stops until Sunday.”
Hallowing the tomb
The gospels recount that some of Jesus’ followers, including Joseph of Arimethea, took his body off the cross and laid it in a tomb. A large stone was rolled over the entrance. The narrative then resumes on Easter morning, but what happened during the time in between?
“To a large extent we’re dealing in the realm of speculation,” said the Rev. Jason Clouse, pastor of Valley Grove Baptist Church in Pontotoc County.
“There are scriptural passages that suggest what happened, but no real narrative, like the rest of the gospels,” he said.
The Rev. R. C. Kreitenstein, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, said Christians shouldn’t infer from the biblical silence that nothing happened.
“It’s like creation,” said Kreitenstein. “Just because we can’t actually see God sustaining creation doesn’t mean that nothing is taking place.”
The Rev. Mark Kuiper, pastor of Lawndale Presbyterian Church, PCA, agreed.
“We have a tendency to equate death with non-existence, that Jesus was nowhere,” said Kuiper. “But, I’ve always believed, based on Peter 1: 3, that Jesus was on a mission in death.”
At the very least, Kreitenstein said, Christians know that Jesus’ entombment was theologically meaningful. “He hallowed the tomb,” said Kreitenstein, explaining that it was another way in which Jesus demonstrated solidarity with humankind.
To the dead
Still, what exactly happened behind the stone? Clouse said there are basically two theories, both of which are based in scripture.
“Some say that, based on Jesus’ words to the thief crucified beside him, ‘This day you will be with me in paradise,’ at his death Jesus’ spirit went to heaven straight from the cross,” said Clouse.
The other theory, Clouse said, is the one to which he and most Christians subscribe.
“Peter says, and John in the Book of Revelation seems to imply, that Jesus descended to the dead and conquered death, hell and Satan forever,” said Clouse.
In some churches the phrase “descended to the dead,” also sometimes translated as “descended into hell,” is expressed in creeds, but some Christians interpret that more literally than others.
“I don’t think we’re talking about the place where Satan and his demons are punished,” said Kuiper. Based on his reading of scripture and the Heidelberg Catechism, Kuiper said he’s certain that Jesus’ punishment was entirely meted out on the cross.
“He faced the wrath of God,” said Kuiper. “He was terrified, and the way he died made death a lot easier for the rest of us.”
Kreitenstein disagreed, saying Jesus literally went to hell, but not to suffer.
“I’d liken Jesus’ descent to a conquering general riding into the camp of a defeated enemy,” said Kreitenstein. Kuiper said that, wherever Jesus went his arrival must have signaled a kind of fulfillment.
“I’ve always felt that Jesus’ descent was anticipated by the saints who went before him,” said Kuiper. “When Jesus said to the thief ‘today,’ I think he was saying that at his death the thief would join the ranks of those who had long awaited this event.”
In some churches, Holy Saturday is observed with a solemn morning service. In the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches, and increasingly in some United Methodist churches, Holy Saturday ends and the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection begins with a special evening service called the Easter Vigil. According to Kreitenstein, the timing is theologically important and the service goes back to church’s earliest beginnings.
“For Jews the next day starts at sundown; for us it starts at midnight,” said Kreitenstein. “Jesus rose sometime after the sun went down on Saturday and before daylight on Sunday.”
Kreitenstein said the vigil should be seen as part of a seamless liturgical observance that begins on Holy or “Maundy” Thursday. “We’re following with Christ from his suffering through his death and resurrection,” he said.
Stephens of All Saints’ said there’s no dismissal at the end of the Holy Week services, again emphasizing the sacramental unity of Holy Week. “We’re telling one story here,” said Stephens. “And, we’re not trying to re-enact it, but to live into it.”
The Rev. Bob Dalton, pastor-in-residence at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Houston, said the Holy Week experience is akin to “liturgical drama.” Stephens likened it to a couple’s anxiety before a wedding.
“That nervousness, that sense of everything coming together starts to build,” he said.
According to an older tradition within the Catholic Church, after the service on Holy Thursday, covers are draped over statues, crucifixes and other ornaments. “We begin the watch, with Jesus, until his death,” said Dalton, referring to the Gethsemane story.
Good Friday, the day on which Jesus died, is Act 2.
On Holy Saturday, the church remains dark at the beginning of the Vigil service as the faithful gather outside around a fire. “The symbolism is taken primarily from the Gospel of John,” said Dalton. “Jesus is the light of the world.”
The Paschal candle is lit and carried into the darkened church where it is used to light other candles. After chanting and prayer, the candles are extinguished and the statues uncovered.
“The light conquers, and Jesus is back with us,” said Dalton. “The readings from the Hebrew scriptures deal with the Exodus. Liturgically, symbolically, we’re moving from bondage into freedom, from sin into salvation, from death into life.”
The church also baptizes and fully initiates new members on the Vigil. The symbolism, said Dalton, bespeaks the mystery of the tomb.
“Going under the water, we symbolically die with Christ, and we emerge with him in the resurrection,” said Dalton. He said the ancient prayers of the church express it best.
“This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphantly to life,” said Dalton. “May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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