Saturday, 4 April 2015

Lent day 40 - Holy Saturday

"On the sabbath, they rested according to the commandment." (Luke 24:56b)

Not even an image of a grave or a tomb suffices to signify this day of emptiness, desolation and grief.

The last day of the Lenten season is treated as a day of preparation, time for spring cleaning in church decorating and making them ready for the celebration of Easter. It's quite understandable that people want to do this, yet it contrasts with the sheer emptiness of the day following the burial of Jesus, of which scripture says so little, and for obvious reasons.

One of the key tenets of God's law and commandments for the Hebrew people was the reservation of one day each week for rest recreation and spiritual renewal. It was understood as essential for health in personal and social relationships, and it applied equally in a analogous way to cultivated land.

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." (Exod 20:8)

"Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed." (Exod 23:12)

The fact that the Gospels report arguments about what constituted a breach of sabbath keeping law and regulation between Jesus and the religious authorities tends to emphasise detailed prohibitions that were characteristic of later stricter Judaism. 

"The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are your disciiples doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:24 & 27-8)

"The leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.” But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water?  This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” " (Luke 13:14-16)

Sabbath observance was positive in its intention, as Jesus was quick to remind his critics.

Jesus was buried hastily without completion the customary funeral rites. The women who wanted to do this duty as an act of closure, setting them free to mourn him properly, could do nothing on the sabbath. They wouldn't seek to do anything that would express contempt for the faith which Jesus had so richly shared with them. Besides, they were still in a state of shock at what happened to him so quickly, so beyond their control. All that was left to them was to wait the long agonising wait until the sabbath was over. If the tomb was more than a sabbath day's journey from the place where they were staying, they wouldn't even have been able to visit and keep watch nearby, and there was that guard mounted at the tomb entrance to maintain security.

This was hardly a day of rest, recreation and renewal for any of those who had witnessed Jesus' suffering and death. We can only reflect on our own response to traumatic events and how the memories replay themselves time and time again in our minds, as we wonder if there was any missed alternative to whatever we were helpless to prevent. For the men who had forsaken him and fled into hiding, there was the added shame of knowing their failure to stand by Jesus. On top of this, the sheer pain for all of them, losing their most beloved teacher, leader and advocate.

This day was unlike any other sabbath day observance before or since. Yet, the sudden wounding experience of death and bereavement is known to many if not most human beings at some time in their lives.

In retrospect, in the light of the healing and transforming encounters with the resurrected Jesus that occurred in following days, Peter, followed by other early Christian writers, felt free to imagine Jesus at work this day in the realm of the dead, taking the message of salvation to preceding generations who would not be excluded from the divine plan, but liberated from bondage to sin and death to take the place prepared for them in God's eternal realm.

"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient..." (1 Pet 3:18-19)

In the perception of their law compliant contemporaries, this could considered the ultimate sabbath restriction breaking initiative. But Jesus himself, early on in his ministry issued this challenge.

"He asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. " (Mark 3:4) 

This day, in the minds of his followers is when Jesus took the offer of life to the most unimaginable of places, before returning to reveal the resurrection to those in deepest grief and shock. It was spoken of in mediaeval Europe as 'the Harrowing of Hell'. The Eastern Orthodox second Troparion of Holy Saturday, from much earlier says this

"When thou didst descend into death, O Life Immortal, then didst thou annihilate Hell with the radiance of thy divinity. And when thou hadst raised up the dead from the nethermost regions, all the powers of heaven cried aloud: O Life-giver, Christ our God, glory to thee!"

There is little mention of this in scripture. It is a glimmer of light in a dark and empty day of waiting, however, and there are Psalm verses that anticipate to this future, oft quoted in the earliest Christian preaching.

"Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices; My flesh also will dwell securely. For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever." (Ps 16:9-11)

As finite mortal human beings, we do not see the whole picture of God's creation and providence, let alone the full meaning of the mystery of salvation through Jesus Christ. Yet, with St Paul, and with the poet of the Song of Songs we can declare 'Love is stronger than Death'

"For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge .… " (2 Cor 5:4-5)

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