Holy Saturday is an odd day in the church calendar. Lent has been building up to the two great moments in the season: the pain and agony of the events of Good Friday, culminating in the death of Jesus on the cross, and the joyous, exuberant celebration of his resurrection from the dead on Easter. Between the two there is a kind of void, a sort of emptiness and, in a sense, aimlessness. It is like the period of fog between the death of a family member or loved one and the funeral, a time when grief and loss are very much present but held in suspense, waiting for the final closure of the funeral. With Jesus, though, the funeral was brief and hurried. Still, the mourning rituals continue in the church that grew around this Jewish son of a Jewish mother, stepson of a Galilean carpenter or tekton, and the Son of God.
Holy Saturday in the church may be a sort of waiting-with-bated-breath kind of day, but anyone involved with a church like ours will tell you that it is one of the busiest days of the busiest weeks in the entire calendar. The church itself is quiet and bare, the aumbry door wide open and showing the empty space within where consecrated elements reside during the rest of the year. The red shade that holds the sanctuary light is a darker, duller shade without the twinkling of the candle that burns inside it when the elements are present. The altar has only the dark maroon cover that usually lies on the cere cloth and fair linen but now covers only the bare wood of the altar’s top. The crosses are still veiled and statues draped with black or deep purple. This is how it was left on Good Friday at the conclusion of the Eucharist for the day, the silence hanging thick and heavy as if it too expressed the grief and loss that Good Friday represented.
Holy Saturday comes and with it a lightening of the grief although it is never far from the mind. At the church the lights go on, the vacuum whirrs, dust cloths seemingly fly about, the scent and finally sight of white lilies and other flowers creep into the nave. The clink of crystal and metal in the sacristy testify to the cleaning and polishing going on while the crosses are unveiled and the altar is set. The baptismal font is readied and the big silver ewer set on the counter in the sacristy, ready to be filled with water for the font which will be then blessed and used for baptisms at the first celebration of Easter, the Great Vigil.
The afternoon brings quiet once again until dusk when the people gather around a fire pit, the fire is lit and the Pascal candle is lit. The cantor begins the chant of the Exultet, part exhortation to rejoice, part remembrance of the Passover and part prayer to ask God’s blessing on the candle which will, throughout the Easter season and other times during the year, represent the eternal light of Christ in a visible and recognizable form. The vigil of death has ended, the Vigil of resurrection has begun.
Ash Wednesday began the journey to Easter and, in a sense, I can experience a smaller, quieter version in any given week. Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am indeed a sinner and that this is something of which I need to repent. Lent is a time that should cause me to think about what has gone before, how it has affected me, those around me and, most of all, fractured my relationship with God. Lent calls me to repent, to turn around from the missing of the mark which is what sin is, and repair what I can while trusting God to do the rest. Good Friday drives the point home, not necessarily as a substitutionary atonement but as an example of how far God is willing to go to show God’s love and forgiveness to a world that cannot really understand or accept how great that love is. What other gods have undergone such an ordeal for their people? What other gods have stepped down from their gilded thrones to become the same as any person by whom they were considered a deity? Jesus did, and as a result we have Holy Saturday, the day between death and despair and the day of greatest joy and celebration.
Holy Saturday, for me, is the time just before dawn when the world waits for the first glimpse of the rising sun. The hush and quiet needs to remain with me for a few more hours, but as the sun sets, I see the light breaking slowly but most surely. Today’s readings may be mostly readings of lamentation, penitence and call for repentance, but I am reminded that, as another Psalm tells me, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30:5c, NRSV)