Easter is the most hectic season of the liturgical calendar. After the inaugural days of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday and the long march of Lent, we finally reach the weekend itself: the solemn services of Good Friday, followed by the sounding trumpets of Easter Sunday.
Some churches also hold services for Maundy Thursday, stripping the chancel in readiness for events to come. But Holy Saturday is a day that typically receives little attention. It is a day in the shadows, marking the turn between the two most important days of the Christian year. Although early versions of the Apostles’ Creed identify it as the darkest day, with Jesus descending into hell, in standard liturgical practice it still offers a break from all that churchgoing, time to step back and catch our breath, or even catch up on our chores.
The Gospel accounts do not reveal much about the activities of the middle day. The most specific biblical reference is in Matthew (27:62-66), where Pilate orders the tomb to be guarded lest the body be stolen and rumours of resurrection inflamed. The Synoptic Gospels also mention the presence of two (or three) women named Mary lingering nearby. In Mark, they see where the body is laid. In Matthew, they are sitting opposite the tomb. In Luke, they prepare spices and ointments before observing the Sabbath rest. It is a time of waiting, not knowing, picking up the pieces; everything Jesus stood for has come to a dismal end.
Since Holy Saturday so often slips into the background, it is interesting to look more closely at some of the ways this day, too, holds theological significance. Approaching Holy Saturday from the perspective of trauma studies, theologian Shelly Rambo wants to slow down the movement from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, interrupting a theology that leaps too quickly from the crucifixion to the resurrection, as if what happens next is already a foregone conclusion. In her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Rambo writes that despite its presence in the Christian creedal tradition, Holy Saturday deserves more attention than it often receives. She suggests it offers a way to gain a deeper spiritual understanding of the trauma that lingers in the body and soul, trauma that resists the pressure to get on with it, find closure, presume a happy ending.
If we look around us on Holy Saturday, the day in the middle, what do we see? When devastating things are happening, in congregations and communities, with no end or easy resolution in sight, how do we hold on to a sense of hope and promise in full recognition of the difficulties before our eyes?
“I think Christian ministers are really struggling with the realities of violence,” writes Rambo, “the pervasiveness of it, and the degree to which their own communities are being exposed to that violence.”
How to still preach the good news? Holy Saturday offers a way to address people’s struggles with injustice, injury and the lasting effects of grief and brokenness. It’s a lens through which we can acknowledge the sense of living betwixt and between.
For Rambo, Good Friday is not about being nailed forever to the cross of suffering, nor is Easter Sunday about a premature, utopian escalation to triumph. In between comes Holy Saturday, which slows down the divine story and illuminates the middle space where we actually live our lives — a space where pain and hope take their often uneasy place side by side.
Jane Dawson is a writer, educator and spiritual director in Victoria.