By George Martin
I looked up from my morning coffee and noticed the bird feeders were almost empty. It was an early but brisk spring day. I started to feel guilty, having had my breakfast. Putting on my jacket, I headed to the garage where various bins held an assortment of different kinds of birdseed. I loaded up with black sunflower seeds, thistle, and what was described on the label as the “ultimate” in birdseed. It wasn’t until I went to refill the sunflower seed feeder that I saw my watch. It was just past 8:30. I remembered my promise. I told the deacon at the church that I would be doing the Holy Saturday service at the same time she would lead that service for whoever might come to the chapel of Christ Church. I would drive the 40 miles later in the day for the Easter Vigil.
I headed to my office and opened my Book of Common Prayer to this simple but profound service which is easily contained on a single page (p. 283). The barrenness of this liturgy reflects the spirit of its offering. It isn’t so much an offering, because there is almost nothing to be done for this worship. The few, mostly optional, rubrics leave much to the imagination.
When I have the opportunity to invite people into this worship, I point out that it honors the second day. Blank stares often follow my observation. Then I explain that Jesus died on Friday, and that’s the first day. People nod their heads, and then continue to look at me with a puzzled expression. I continue by saying that Jesus rose on the third day. That brings a more affirmative response, followed by “Oh, Saturday is the second day.”
That’s my opening to explain that this must have been a dark and mournful day for the disciples of Jesus. They must have gathered as we all do when someone close to us has died. Many of the gospel stories give an image of the disciples actually hiding, presumably in fear, behind locked doors. We may not lock our doors when grief comes, but we pray as they must have – for Jesus, to be sure, but also for themselves. If I sense that people have any interest in coming to the Holy Saturday service, I then ask, “And where do you think Jesus was on day two?” More bewilderment appears. Such a crazy question seems to be rarely entertained in Christian circles these days, but it was certainly on the minds of some who followed Jesus.
One of the lessons for the Holy Saturday liturgy (1 Pet. 4:1-8) tells us something confirmed in the Apostles’ Creed but rarely preached. The belief was that Jesus was preaching in hell between his death and resurrection. The Apostles’ Creed more delicately says he descended to the dead. I prefer the story from the First Letter of Peter that Jesus wasn’t just taking the day off, but was continuing his ministry by preaching to those who were suffering in hell.
The name “Holy Saturday” doesn’t usually mean a service for those who grieve. More than once I’ve asked if the service is observed at someone’s church. “Oh yes,” the person responds, “we do it in the evening, with baptisms, Easter songs, and a party.” Knowingly, I shake my head, and tell them I was thinking about a different service, about the one meant for the morning, not the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.
Few people, including many of my clergy friends, observe Holy Saturday. This morning is usually spent in busyness as people get the church ready for the Easter Vigil and Easter Day. Many clergy are finishing their sermons on Holy Saturday. Many church people are preparing for an Easter gathering at their homes. Easter eggs are being dyed. Few are actually sitting in a barren chapel or church doing the nothing that is asked for in this strange kind of wake.
What is most striking about this service and maybe what is so absent from other times of corporate prayer is the honesty about doubt, fear and loss that oozes from the lessons. In addition to the reflection from the First Letter of Peter, there is a lesson from the book of Job marked by skepticism. Human grief nearly always includes the extremes of doubt and trust, despair and hope, but rarely do we let the negative aspects of grief come into full view. We don’t know if the disciples thought about Job’s dark questions on that second day, but without knowing about Easter, there’s a good chance the dismal murmurings of Job were echoing in their sadness.
Holy Saturday most appropriately suggests a gospel either from John or Matthew. The assigned stories from both gospels help us remember why this day is worth keeping. This is the service at which we hear about the courage of Joseph of Arimathea, who made it possible for the body of Jesus to receive a proper burial.
The most profound part of Holy Saturday involves the prayers. In essence we read the burial rite for Jesus, but we do so evoking the kinds of prayer seemingly reserved for the darkest and most horrific of death experiences. Whether we use the suggested forms that are traditional or contemporary, the prayer book in a kind of rubrical surprise encourages us to read prayers we wouldn’t normally choose. I can’t ever remember, in fact, being asked by a family in mourning, while preparing their funeral, to open the service with prayers that make as their petition, “deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.” That line comes from one of the suggested litanies for this service. If ever there was an occasion to be honest, however, about a devastating loss, it is on the day after Good Friday.
I have also used this service to share a marvelous poem called A Good Man in Hell by Edwin Muir. The poem is clearly a meditation on what it would mean if a good man in hell didn’t succumb to the hate and despair so rampant and contagious in such a state. What would it mean, the poet mused, if a word of life and goodness was actually preached in hell and heard? The poet was meditating about someone like Christ standing for goodness and actually becoming stronger in his faith in that context. The key part of the poem wonders about this event:
Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here, someone could live and could live well?
If that ever happened the poet suggests that creation would begin again, and that hell would be like any other place where” .. . love and hate and life and death begin.”
On my last Holy Saturday, having finished feeding the birds, I sat in my office, on the couch where I like to read and pray. In my imagination I could see Barbara, our deacon, in the chapel with members of the Altar Guild and a few others drawn into the mystery of this remembrance. I knew that none of them was vested. That wasn ‘t needed. The altar was as barren as had been after the stripping two days before. The flowers for Easter would be delivered in a few hours and that meant that even the providential smell of the lilies was absent. I needed just my Bible and one page from the Book of Common Prayer. Something deep, almost wordless, in me told me that once again I needed to keep Holy Saturday. For those few people gathered in that chapel an hour away, I knew that they were keeping their first Holy Saturday service, for no one ever remembered it being held at that church. I was pretty sure they would be grateful for participating. They were. You probably will be as well if you keep Holy Saturday as part of your Holy Week.
The Rev. George Martin is the interim rector of St. Bartholomew ‘s Church, Poway, California. This article was first published in the April 16, 2006 issue of The Living Church.