It is Holy Saturday, and I’m at the Easter Vigil, sitting in the pew of an unlit basilica. My eyes move upward along the arches toward the vaulted ceiling. The usually brilliant hues of gold and blue are now mottled shades of gray, like the roof of the cave in which our Savior was born. My eyes move to the stained-glass windows, blackened by the inky evening beyond, like the sky under which the Savior died. The nave is enwrapped in silent darkness, like that of the tomb in which the Savior was laid to rest.
The Service of Light reminds us that the Son of God desired to enter and exit the world under cover of darkness, accentuating his title as the Light of the World. But it also prods us to consider the plan of the Great Tactician in his invasion of enemy-occupied territory. As the Savior had entered the world, so he would invade hell on Holy Saturday.
Saturday in the Jewish Calendar, Shabbat, was the day of rest. Having completed his saving work on the cross, Christ honors the Sabbath as his body lays at rest in the tomb. And yet, Christ does not remain idle, for he is lord even of the Sabbath. As he had healed the infirmed daughter of Abraham on the Sabbath day, the indignation of the Pharisees notwithstanding, it was fitting that all those asleep in Abraham’s bosom be “loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:16). This would fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah: “The Lord shall ransom Jacob, he shall redeem him from the hand of his conqueror” (Jer. 31:11).
Like a commander who has taken the field of battle, Christ’s victory over the enemy was not complete until he had freed the prisoners of war, held fast by original sin. To think otherwise would be to suggest that the Good Shepherd would not seek out his scattered sheep after defeating the wolf.
As the Paschal candle enters the church in the Easter Vigil, one speck of light multiplies to hundreds. As the light spreads, God’s deeds and promises in the history of salvation from the creation of the world forward are read. We are reminded of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all of God’s holy people who died before Christ’s coming.
There is only one name under heaven given to men through which they can be saved—the name proclaimed to the dead on Holy Saturday. But how could those who died not hearing Christ’s name recognize it, and be saved? As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, before his coming, the just Jews explicitly believed in Christ—albeit in a veiled or darkened manner—inasmuch as they believed in the sacrifices of the Old Law, which foreshadowed Christ’s Passion. Moreover, even Gentiles could have had an implicit faith in Christ, inasmuch as they believed that the governor of the universe known through the works of creation would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to him. They died in faith, and awaited him in hope.
The harrowing of hell is a great mystery in more ways than one. How can an incorporeal spirit, the God-man Jesus Christ subsisting apart from his body, “descend” to the lower parts of the earth? The precise way in which incorporeal souls can be “in a place” cannot be fully manifest to us. Still, it can be said that Christ’s descent is like that of angelic motion: he contacts the souls in that place, and leads them forth to glory through his power.
But if Holy Saturday was the moment for which the patriarchs had yearned since their captivity began, what of Christ’s followers who, for the first time in recent memory, were observing Sabbath apart from the Lord?
They had been expecting a messiah who would throw off the yoke of the Roman occupiers. The Son of David was expected to inaugurate a kingdom that would renew and surpass the earthly glory of the Davidic kingship. While mistaken, this was understandable, for the promise to Abraham and his seed was that God would give his people the promised land (Gen. 12:7). But the promise was to be fulfilled in a spiritual way, through faith in Christ (Gal. 3:29). Judas’ betrayal can be seen in this light: he sought to force Jesus’ hand because he was impatient for Christ to reveal himself as an earthly king. But, as he had already done in the wilderness, Jesus again resisted Satan’s temptation to lordship in this world to instead inaugurate a spiritual kingdom. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he tells Pilate (John 18:36).
How fear must have churned in the disciples’ stomachs and grief choked their throats! How strong the temptation to despair must have been! The absolutely just man had been tortured and punished as if guilty of the greatest injustice. If mourning is proportioned to the love lost, and if Christ is most deserving of our love, then Holy Saturday is the day of sorrow. Because mourning the dead is characteristic of man, Holy Saturday is a metaphor for the human condition.
And yet somewhere in the recesses of their memories were Christ’s prophetic words that the Son of Man must die and rise again on the third day and the recollection that he had raised Lazarus from the grave. Perhaps Peter also recalled the eucharistic discourse recorded in John 6. Christ’s insistence that his flesh and blood must be eaten and drunk to enjoy eternal life so scandalized many of his followers that they abandoned him. When Christ saw this, he asked the disciples if they will leave too. It is easy to imagine that Peter’s cri de coeur was the same as that of his followers on that first Holy Saturday: “To Whom should we go? Thy words are the words of eternal life. We have learned to believe and are assured that thou art Christ, the Son of God.”
Without the Resurrection, Paul taught, the traditional Christian faith is folly. Hence, the vision of Christ as merely a great moral teacher—proffered by skeptics and deists such as Thomas Jefferson, whose cut-and-pasted Gospel terminates with the rolling of the stone over the tomb—is a non-starter. Only four rational options are available: His claim to be God was the scurrilous lie of a blasphemer (liar), the delusion of a madman (lunatic), a legend fabricated by his followers (legend), or he is who he says he is (Lord). Was not that first Holy Saturday the worst day in the lives of Jesus’ followers, apparently dashing all they hoped in, such that the temptation to believe the first three hypotheses was strong? By not despairing as Judas did, his followers clung to the Lord hypothesis even before the Resurrection.
In some real sense, the Holy Triduum teaches us that Christians are a Holy Saturday people because we cling to a hope for the coming light precisely when the night is darkest. As his first followers awaited his promised rise from the pit, so we believers in the Resurrection now await the Second Coming and the fulfillment of his promise of a New Jerusalem where there is no more sorrow and pain, where former things have passed away. Christians are a Holy Saturday people because we embrace the simultaneously sorrowful and joyful tension toward the divine ground of being in this vale of tears.
The Paschal light has spread through the congregation, as if lighting the bedchamber in preparation for the Bridegroom’s coming. And the somber anticipation turns to an excited yearning, like that felt by Peter and John when they sprinted to the empty tomb. And then the brilliant flash of light before the Gloria is sung. He is coming.