Published on April 18, 2019 by Gerald McDermott  
Photo by Austin Thesing on Unsplash
Photo by Austin Thesing on Unsplash

This post originally appeared at Anglican Pastor.

Holy Saturday

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Holy Saturday is one of those great mysteries that the early church pondered.

What was Christ doing between his death and resurrection (in his divinity rather than his humanity)?

What did the creed mean by Jesus having “descended to the dead”?

Is this what Peter meant when he wrote that Jesus “preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19)?

What happened to the souls of all those who lived before the Incarnation and never heard the gospel?

Holy Saturday was the answer to all these questions.

Tertullian wrote that Christ descended to Hades (the upper portion of Sheol) on Holy Saturday to acquaint the patriarchs and prophets with his redeeming mission.

Cyril of Alexandria preached that Christ appeared to all those in the “lower regions” (Eph 4:9) so that they too could benefit from his coming. “The only-begotten Son shouted with authority to the suffering souls, saying to those in chains, ‘Come out!’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be enlightened!’” Some believed and were freed. Others, blinded by idolatry or lusts, could not see him and so were not delivered.

This was the “harrowing of hell” that the medieval church celebrated in its pageants.

Whether we believe the early church got 1 Peter 3 right or not, we can take its interpretation as a symbol of their conviction—and that of the Great Tradition–that God is just and loving and will deal accordingly with all those who have not heard.

Easter Vigil/Eve

O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up that Spirit of adoption which is given to your Church in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Easter Vigil is the greatest service of the Christian year.

Augustine called it “the mother of all vigils.”

Just as Jews believe in their Passover seder that they are brought back into the original event of redemption so that they become contemporaries of it, so too the historic Church has believed that in this “Great Sabbath” time, especially its Bible readings recounting the history of salvation, the faithful participate in these events as contemporaries.

When they are sprinkled with water, they are lifted up out of linear time into sacramental time to join Christ in his baptism, both by water and blood.  Then at its climax—the Eucharist—they are joined to the risen Christ in his humanity and not only his divinity. The resurrection of their Lord is no longer a past event but a present reality.

Because the service starts in darkness and ends with light, they can recite the Collect with joy and fresh recognition: “O God, [You] made this holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection.”

Gerald McDermott is Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, and director of the Institute of Anglican Studies at Beeson.