December 3, 2020

Why We Need Holy Saturday


The Dead Christ, Mantegna

Note: In honor of Holy Saturday, we will not have an edition of Saturday Ramblings today. We will have a “links” post early in the week to come.

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For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…

– 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

One of the richest books of theology I have read in recent years is Alan E. Lewis’s meditation on Holy Saturday called, Between Cross and Resurrection. I know I shall be returning to it again and again, so fulsome is the consideration of its subject, and so profoundly challenging it is to the shallow ways I contemplate the mystery of Christ’s sufferings and exaltation.

Lewis recognizes the slender amount of material that the Bible devotes to the time between Good Friday and Easter. He observes that John’s Gospel, in particular, anticipates the victory of the resurrection even while Jesus is yet on the cross, rendering his final words, “It is finished!” — a victory cry. However, Lewis also recognizes that John’s Upper Room Discourse (chapters 13-17), which comes before the story of the cross, anticipates the desolation the disciples would feel after Jesus’ death and before they saw him again. Generally speaking, in the chronological narratives of the Gospels it is primarily the later inclusion of chapter divisions that gives us a chance to pause between the accounts of Jesus’ death and his resurrection.

Nevertheless, in summarizing the gospel story, Paul explicitly includes Jesus’ burial followed by his resurrection on the “third day” (1Cor. 15 – see above). The Creeds, succinct as they are, also emphasize this detail as well as the intriguing fact of his “descent to hell.” In the Westminster Shorter Catechism we read of Jesus “being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.” Thus has the Church traditionally held that a faithful telling of the Jesus story must include the fact that he lay in the grave, dead, between the cross and resurrection. As Lewis says,

Here, we are told, we must stop and ponder, must absorb the brutal facts, let the realization sink slowly in that Christ’s life is finished and done, that he has drunk the cup of mortality to its last, most hellish drop.

The author notes that a failure to make a proper, sustained pause between Good Friday and Easter threatens our full appreciation of both Jesus’ death and and his resurrection. Moving too quickly from the cross to the empty tomb, we fail to grasp the depths of Jesus’ suffering; what it means that God suffered and died that day. Nor can we know the wonder, power, and hope of “He is risen!” unless we feel the full weight of God lying lifeless in the grave during an interval of utter despair when no such hope was even conceivable.

For this reason I will be attending Easter Vigil tonight. Having witnessed the stripping of the altar on Thursday, and having descended into darkness with the congregation in Good Friday’s Tenebrae service, on Saturday we gather in the chill of the evening air around a fire as the sun sets. The liturgy includes words like this: “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”

We then proceed together into a dark sanctuary following a new Paschal Candle. As the service goes on, we light more and more candles and the light grows. Wonderful texts from the Bible are read, reciting the great salvific acts of God. We renew our baptismal vows and celebrate with those coming to be baptized. Darkness turns to light. Buried with Christ in baptism, we rise to walk with him in newness of life.

This is the pinnacle of the Church Year. The light of Easter shines much brighter for me now that I explicitly acknowledge the darkness of Holy Saturday.

We wrap up with a quote from Lewis:

Lewis BookIn summary, the complex, multiple meaning of the story will only emerge as we hold in tension what the cross says on its own, what the resurrection says on its own, and what each of them says when interpreted in the light of the other. It would not be impossible to graph the entire history of church doctrine and life by plotting the interpretations which have failed to give due weight to one or the other of these essentials in the story by which and for which the Christian community lives. We might discover that the second day, which serves both to keep the first and the third days apart in their separate identities and to unite them in their indivisibility, offers a useful stance from which to make one more effort at a properly multivocal, stereophonic hearing of the gospel story.

Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday
Alan E. Lewis


  1. The dark church, the stipped altar without a crucifix behind it, no flowers, no art…..and the words to the old slave gospel song…”Were you there when they crucified my Lord?……”

    That was last night, when the Roman and Greek parishes here in town had parking lots more full than Beth Shalom.

    There is no Easter except through this day….and the loss and desolation that we all feel, on this holy day and on others like it in our own lives. For a day and a night, Satan REALLY thought he and his demons had won.

    But it wasn’t over yet…

  2. “The resurrection, the inner call to the Eternal More, to the sense of undying life within us, is the magnet that keeps us moving through life, in quest of its mystery, in certainty of its truth. Alleluia.”

    –from The Way of the Cross: The Path to New Life by Joan Chittister

  3. Yes, my wife and I will be at the Easter Vigil tonight, in our home Episcopal parish, rather than the Lutheran church where she works and which does not have an Easter Vigil service. Holy Saturday can teach us the lesson of waiting, a lesson we need to learn, and a gift we need to exercise, as we live in these between-times, sometimes waiting with a sense of hopelessness perhaps not much different from that of the apostles’ waiting between Good Friday and Easter, though our hope is certain.

  4. The more western part of Christianity has a decided inclination towards the theologia crucis; that is, towards bringing out and emphasizing the fact that He was surrendered for our transgressions. Whereas the Eastern brings more into the foreground the fact that He was raised for our justification and so inclines toward the theologiia gloriae. One can see tendencies in the west of sliding toward the east. Of course there is no Easter without Friday. But equally certainly it would not be Good Friday without Easter. We have tendencies to play one off against the other, for western and eastern to have some oppositions. Truth is there is no theologia crucis or theologia gloriae which does not have a complement in the other. Looking up complementary in Mirriam-Webster I read that it is used of two things when each adds something to the other or helps to make the other better. Also, going together well.

    • I’ve come to feel that the theology of the cross is more central to Christian faith than the theology of glory, because I’ve come to believe the heart of God is cruciform. Even the glory of Jesus Christ, his glorified body, bear the marks of his passion, and these marks are what distinguish the glory of Jesus Christ, and the glory of God the Father and Spirit also, from the glory of the pantheon of gods that the human mind and spirit has manufactured. God’s glory does not exist apart from his cross, and it is precisely his cross that makes his glory the glory of the God of Israel rather than the glory of all the false gods.

  5. One cannot live…truly live…without dying first.

    So much of the trouble in churches these (of so many stripes) is that there’s no dying going on.

  6. I shall be going to the Easter Vigil mass tonight as well, though I have never been to it before. I look forward to letting the reality of Saturday sink in as we wait for Sunday morning.

  7. I got my dose of Saturday stink when I looked at myself in the mirror this morning.

    For it was I (and the rest of us) that were the occasion for that bloody death he died.

    • Yes, and he trampled down death by death, bestowing life upon those is the tombs! Had he not the bloody death would be like every other one upon this planet, leaving very little to hope for or rejoice when one looks in the mirror.

  8. CM, thanks for the appropriate break from Rambling.