What About Holy Saturday?
“We’re you there when they laid him in the tomb?” Before sunset on Good Friday, according to the Gospels, he was taken from the cross and laid in a tomb. There are, of course, different versions of this story, but they all agree. Jesus was dead and lying in a tomb. This reality is pictured quite vividly in this image of Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1521-1522). The painting hangs in Basel’s Kunstmuseum. Cheryl and I encountered it during our trip to Europe. It’s both fascinating and disturbing to see in person. Even though this is simply a picture of a painting, I invite you to meditate on it as you consider the question I raise in the title of the post.
What happened between the moment of his entombment on Friday evening and the Sunday discovery of his resurrection? What occurred on Saturday? The Gospels are silent, except perhaps this somewhat obscure statement found in 1 Peter:
18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)
The italicized words in this passage gave rise to the idea that on Holy Saturday Jesus descended into Hades and rescued those imprisoned in hell.
We see reference to his “harrowing of hell,” as it’s known, in the Apostles Creed, The creed (and I should note that I’m part of a non-creedal tradition)declares of Jesus: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” Much like the reference in 1 Peter, this declaration seems rather odd, but it reveals that the early church assumed Jesus was up to something on Holy Saturday. I’m not one to build theologies on obscure texts like these two, whether scriptural or creedal, but it is intriguing.
While we tend to skip from Friday to Sunday, could Saturday’s silence offer a word of hope for the dead? Could it speak of a hope that lies beyond the grave? The idea of the harrowing of hell suggests that Jesus used this time to gather the dead so that they might share in his resurrection? Protestants tend not to embrace the idea of purgatory, in part because the doctrine had been misused in the medieval period, but perhaps it might speak to us at this moment. It’s not that purgatory necessarily must be a “place,” but it can be a way of thinking that God is not finished with us at death. As Michael Downey writes:
As God’s act beyond our dying and death, purgation describes an intensity of transformation. At our death we are still in need of psychological healing. Different dimensions, or levels, of our self, what Thomas Merton called the “true self,” are as yet unintegrated. Levels of our personality remain disordered and warped. The fullness of life is not yet ours. But it may be by God’s own doing. Rather than a forbidding state, purgatory is a region of hope. [Michael Downey, The Depth of God’s Reach, pp. 79-80].
As I said above, I’m not one for building theologies on a couple of texts, but I offer these thoughts as a way of thinking about Holy Saturday and its meaning for us at this time. Might we find some hope in the silence of the Tomb.