Saturday, April 20, 2019

Triduum: Holy Saturday

Without a doubt, Holy Saturday is the weirdest day of the entire church year. It is the day we observe Christ laying dead in the tomb. An ancient Christian homily, which is the second reading for the Office of Readings on Holy Saturday, imagines what Jesus's was doing on this day between his death and his resurrection. Cutting to the chase, the preacher of this homily imagines Christ entering the shadow world, something akin to what the Greeks called "Hades." Christ's purpose for going there is to liberate those who have died from this shadow life.

In his journey to the underworld, Christ carries his cross, which the preacher identifies as the weapon with which he won his victory over death. He enters the shadowlands, the dark valley of death, to convey his victory to the souls of the just, who cannot reach their destination without crossing the bridge from the abyss to their eternal rest. At least on my telling (there is no mention of a bridge in the homily) the bridge over which they cross is Christ's cross.

Today the tabernacles in all churches are empty with their doors open to show that they are empty. The Blessed Sacrament is in the chapel or on the altar of repose, which serves as Christ's liturgical tomb. In fact, the church itself, sans the Blessed Sacrament, sits in tomb-like emptiness, dark and quiet. No masses, no weddings, no baptisms or confirmations (except perhaps for those who are in danger of death- these do not happen in the church) are celebrated today.

Usually confessions are heard on Holy Saturday. Penitents come into the dark, quiet, empty church to confess the many ways they deal in death. This death-dealing has a shorter name: sin. Going to confession on Holy Saturday, penitents speak their sins in the emptiness of the tomb. So, when they depart, having been absolved and (presumably) having made satisfaction, they do so with the assurance that their sins are dead and buried. By grace, they pray that these death-dealing words, thoughts, and actions will never again come to life in them.

The effect of sin is make you a spiritual zombie. Sin is never resurrected life. Sin is always a parasite on life. Honest penitents know themselves well enough not to be overly confident about succeeding because their strategies have largely to do with self-help methods. While such methods may help one cope, they cannot impart life eternal. Instead, the true penitent places her hope in the Lord, who is kind and merciful

A snippet from my unfocused paper on Samuel Beckett from last year seems fitting for Holy Saturday:
Heidegger once noted "absence is not nothing."1 It has been pointed out that Beckett’s works stand as "a testimony" to the truth of Heidegger’s assertion.2 The presence of God’s absence, which is most explicit in Waiting for Godot, turns into "an experience of transcendence."3 Referring to his own work, Beckett wrote: "I feel the only line is to refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind… We have no elucidations to offer of mysteries that are all of their own making."4
Circling back to the Office of Readings for today, the first reading, which always comes from the Scriptures, is from the fourth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (vv. 1-13). Many exegetes hold that, like the ancient sermon for Holy Saturday, this book of the New Testament was originally a sermon.

Referencing Psalm 95, which I prayed as the first Psalm for the Office of Readings because I have been using Psalm 24 as the invitatory Psalm during Lent and now in the Triduum, noting how the generation that God liberated from Egyptian servitude was not permitted to enter the Promise Land because of their disobedience, the inspired author of Hebrews discusses entering into the Sabbath rest. This is the very same rest to which Christ invites our first parents in the ancient sermon. Again, citing Psalm 95, the author of Hebrews urges these ancient Jewish Christians, many of whom were tempted to renounce their faith in Christ Jesus, not to harden their hearts with regard to what they've heard God speak in and through Christ.

In another wholly unplanned occurrence this morning, similar to unexpectedly praying Psalm 95, I read the final chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict. Upon completing my reading of the Rule, I read Esther de Waal's commentary on that chapter. It was de Waal's commentary that struck the harmonizing chord with the Office of Readings. Noting that in the final chapter of his Rule Benedict asks his reader - "Are you hastening toward your heavenly home?," de Waal makes the connection with the passage from Hebrews 4: "The fullness of that question comes when I read these words in the context of those poetic images from Hebrews (4:11; 11:14-15)."5 These poetic images, she notes, are "of seeking a country, and of that city that God has prepared for us."6 Both the image of the country in Hebrews 4 and of the city in Hebrews 11 are "images of home that capture the imagination."7

De Waal captures beautifully how I am thinking and feeling on this Holy Saturday morning: "The need to come home, the desire to be where I belong, is something that touches one of the deepest chords in all human experience."8

I think it is very important not to be too quick to leap over Good Friday and Holy Saturday in a mad rush to celebrate the resurrection. Making our way prayerfully through the first two-thirds of the sacred Triduum makes the Easter Vigil all the more glorious.

1 Martin Heidegger, “The Thing: Epilogue,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. by Alfred Hofstadter. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971, 184.
2 Sandra Wynands, Iconic Spaces: The Dark Theology of Samuel Beckett’s Drama. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, 6.
3 Ibid.
4 Maggie Johnson, "Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: A Study Guide." Scribd Website, accessed January 26, 2018,
5 Esther de Waal. A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995,189.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., 189-190.
8 Ibid., 190.

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