A sermon preached for Holy Saturday at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, 4/15/17; 1 Peter 4:1-8; Matthew 27:57-66.
Today is one of the richest days, and certainly the darkest, the most somber day, of the entire Church year. It is a day of silence, emptiness, absence. A day of heartbroken grief. It’s a day in which we are simply without. We do not even have the Crucified One to gaze upon. He is in the tomb, and the stone has been rolled in place. The light that otherwise burns year round no longer flickers, and our tabernacle stands open and empty. We are without.
And this is a day that the Church easily overlooks. Often we barely remember Good Friday, jumping from Palm Sunday straight to Easter—and Holy Saturday, well you can forget about it. But it’s a day that the Church needs, it’s a day that makes our faith real. There are very few of us who have not known a “dark night of the soul,” to use John of the Cross’ expression. A time when we could not feel, could not believe, maybe could not even hope, that God is anything like a reality.
And Christ’s own entry into death, his disappearance into absence, has hallowed those experiences, those dark nights. Has said, even this is held in God, even this belongs. These times are an honored part of our Christian faith, so much so that they are given a day, a full day, at the very heart and center of the Christian year. And Holy Saturday tells us that these days cannot be jumped over or short-changed in the journey of faith; they can only be passed through. We can’t get to Easter without them; and without them, Easter is utterly meaningless. And so we’re not to avoid them or push them away, but to simply remember that Jesus has gone here before us.
Pope Benedict XVI once wrote a series of meditations on Holy Saturday. In one of them he says this: “The death of God in Jesus Christ is at the same time the expression of [God’s] radical solidarity with us. The most obscure mystery of the faith is at the same time the clearest sign of a hope without end. And what is more: only through the failure of Holy Friday, only through the silence of death of Holy Saturday, were the disciples able to be led to an understanding of all that Jesus truly was and all that his message truly meant. God had to die for them so that [God] could truly live in them. The image they had formed of God, within which they had tried to hold [God] down, had to be destroyed so that through the rubble of the ruined house they might see the sky, [God] who remains, always, the infinitely greater.”
In the stripping away of the felt presence of God today, our limited conceptions of God are also stripped away. The disciples had to lose the God they had known outside of themselves in Jesus in order to find the God within them, and also the God utterly beyond anything they could think or imagine. Only through absence and loss at one level could they break through to God at a new level.
Today is also traditionally known as the Great Sabbath. In the creation story, after six days of work, God rests on the seventh. And Jesus, working to bring about the new creation, on the sixth day finishes his work—“It is finished”—and on the seventh he rests—in the tomb, in death.
But if you remember, in the Gospels Jesus was always getting into trouble for not resting on the Sabbath—for doing good, for healing and restoring instead. And so it seems entirely appropriate that as tradition would have it, Jesus kept busy even while in death. You may have caught the line in our reading from the First Letter of Peter: “this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” And earlier in his letter, Peter writes: “[Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison…”
And so tradition has it that while we who are alive wait and feel Christ’s absence today, he descends to the dead, descends into hell, and frees the captives—and so the only reason anyone remains in hell is because they choose to be there, because Christ has broken open the doors and flung wide the gates. And so there is now no place, this side of the grave or beyond, to which the light of the Gospel does not extend.
But even more importantly, another teaching here is that when God feels the most absent, when we feel the most devastated, just maybe in those times, the Divine life is quietly, fiercely at work beneath the surface of things. And maybe it was God all along who was working to bring the house crashing down, so that, in Pope Benedict’s words, through the rubble we might see the sky—and perhaps discover we never needed that roof or those walls anyway. Try applying that teaching to the times we live in. How is God quietly, fiercely, at work now beneath the surface of things, in the midst of what feels like rubble and destruction?
And the final teaching from this image that I will offer you is this: that Jesus’ descent into hell, his liberation of the captives, is a model for our own discipleship. We are called to descend into the hell of our neighbors and help lift them out. It might be the hell of the undocumented worker facing deportation. Or the hell of your Muslim neighbor facing religious persecution. Or the mass-incarcerated hell lived by black men in this country. There are lots of hells that we are called to descend into and from which we are called to release the captives.
In an ancient sermon from the early Church, Jesus is imagined on this Great Sabbath preaching to those in hell; he cries out: “I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.” As long as one of us is left in hell, Christ is left in hell, because we form only one person and we can never be separated.
And so today, dark and somber and empty as it is, is shot through with hope. Hope that Christ is tirelessly working beneath the surface of things. Hope that there is now nowhere that he is not, even in the absence, even in the darkness, even in our brokenness and despair and confusion. And beyond hope, a call to action: go to hell. Go to hell! Enter the devastation of your neighbor, take their hand, and help pull them out. Go to the hurting and broken places for together with Christ we form only one Person, one Body, and from him, and from each another, we can never be separated. And so, in the despair and emptiness of this day, look through the rubble, take the hand of your sisters and your brothers, help lift each other up, and together, look at the open sky.