Great and Holy Saturday

Great and Holy Saturday is the day on which Christ reposed in the tomb.

The Church calls this day the Blessed Sabbath. The great Moses mystically foreshadowed this day when he said:

God blessed the seventh day.
This is the blessed Sabbath.
This is the day of rest,
on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works . . . .

(Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday)

By using this title the Church links Holy Saturday with the creative act of God. In the initial account of creation as found in the Book of Genesis, God made man in His own image and likeness. To be truly himself, man was to live in constant communion with the source and dynamic power of that image: God. Man fell from God. Now Christ, the Son of God through whom all things were created, has come to restore man to communion with God. He thereby completes creation. All things are again as they should be. His mission is consummated. On the Blessed Sabbath He rests from all His works.

THE TRANSITION

Holy Saturday is a neglected day in parish life. Few people attend the Services. Popular piety usually reduces Holy Week to one day — Holy Friday. This day is quickly replaced by another — Easter Sunday. Christ is dead and then suddenly alive. Great sorrow is suddenly replaced by great joy. In such a scheme Holy Saturday is lost.

In the understanding of the Church, sorrow is not replaced by joy; it is transformed into joy. This distinction indicates that it is precisely within death the Christ continues to effect triumph.

TRAMPLING DOWN DEATH BY DEATH

We sing that Christ is “. . . trampling down death by death” in the troparion of Easter. This phrase gives great meaning to Holy Saturday. Christ’s repose in the tomb is an “active” repose. He comes in search of His fallen friend, Adam, who represents all men. Not finding him on earth, He descends to the realm of death, known as Hades in the Old Testament. There He finds him and brings him life once again. This is the victory: the dead are given life. The tomb is no longer a forsaken, lifeless place. By His death Christ tramples down death.

THE ICON OF THE DESCENT INTO HADES

The traditional icon used by the Church on the feast of Easter is an icon of Holy Saturday: the descent of Christ into Hades. It is a painting of theology, for no one has ever seen this event. It depicts Christ, radiant in hues of white and blue, standing on the shattered gates of Hades. With arms outstretched He is joining hands with Adam and all the other Old Testament righteous whom He has found there. He leads them from the kingdom of death. By His death He tramples death.

Holy Saturday

“It is finished!”

When Jesus died on the Cross, at that moment he trampled upon death by his death.

“He rose on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Why the wait?
First, our Lord was a pious Jew, part of the people with whom God had made a covenant. It was to perfectly fulfill this covenant that Jesus rested on the seventh day from his labors to begin a new creation on the eighth day.

“The great Moses mystically prefigured the present day when he said: God blessed the seventh day. For this is the blessed Sabbath. This is the day of rest on which the only-begotten Son of God kept the Sabbath in the flesh by resting in death from all his works according to the plan of salvation. Returning again to what he was through the Resurrection, he granted us eternal life. He alone is good and Loves us all.” (Doxasticheron of Holy Saturday)

By keeping the Sabbath, he fulfilled the Scriptures, as we profess always, “he rose according to the Scriptures.” This was to fulfill the sign of Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of the great fish: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39). This day is the sign given to all believers.

Father Alexander Schmemann wrote that Holy Saturday manifests our life in the world. The Son of God was not subject to corruption, but we are mortal and must return to dust. Peter preached on Pentecost: “This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23-24). But we are still held by the throes of death. This day is a reflection of our lives in the world. He live in the hope of resurrection and eternal life, but for now we must work to establish the kingdom of God in the world in which we live, a world that does not know Christ, a world in which we all must confront the mystery of death. Today we pray that God may give us the grace, the strength to “do his will, on earth as it is in heaven.”