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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As a child growing up in southern Minnesota, in a time known by architects as Midcentury Modern, Holy Saturday, the day before Easter was the longest day of the year. There were no city-wide Easter eggs hunts then, or football length brunch tables to look forward to. You might find a rainbow colored set of baby chicks at the window of pet store or dime store. At best you dyed your eggs, polished your shoes and then watched your parents iron your new clothes for the Easter parade at church.
Holy Saturday in Midcentury Modern southern Minnesota was like the Sabbath Day in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Life paused. No one expected anything to happen, and nothing did. At the end of our Good Friday reading we heard the words, “Then taking Jesus’ body from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the tomb and departed.” That was the end of the story. He laid Jesus there. That was the last we heard of him. The sabbath day was approaching, and according to the commandment, Joseph of Arimathea, the women who followed Jesus, the disciples and the whole city of Jerusalem rested.
Not many churches in my childhood celebrated Holy Saturday, and not many more now. And of those that do, very few people show up- sometimes, not even the pastor’s wife and family. And why would they want to? Isn’t there enough grief and loss in the Good Fridays of life already? Why would you want to prolong it? After all, how long can you truly spend meditating on Christ’s crucifixion?
But my friends, that’s not the whole Easter story. If we skip over that silence of Holy Saturday, we may well overlook the most amazing and hopeful drama. It’s what happened after Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. It’s what we confess every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed. Christ Descended to the Kingdom of the Dead, or as we said in Midcentury Modern English, Jesus descended into hell.
The Orthodox icon for Holy Saturday powerfully proclaims the events of that silent day, for it anything but silent for Jesus. The icon may look strange to most Americans or Western Europeans. We have often focused our imagery of Easter on the empty tomb and linen clothes. The altar paintings of Norwegian immigrant churches I served depicted the women coming to the tomb and an angel sitting on the stone announcing, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen.” In the Orthodox tradition, however, they focus instead on the events of Holy Saturday when Jesus descended into hell. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says the gates of hell, will not be able to prevail against him. In St. Peter’s first Epistle, we read, “After being made alive, Jesus went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” And again, “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”
At the feet of Jesus, we see in the icon, the broken gates of hell, as well as broken locks, bolts, and bars. That is all to tell us that Jesus has broken into the prison of hell and letting the righteous free. Various Old Testament figures are seen to right and left, including Kings David and Solomon and John the Baptist. Jesus is seen holding onto the wrists of Adam and Eve and lifting them up. They cannot be liberated on their own. Martin Luther wrote of the Holy Saturday and Jesus’ descent into hell, “Through Christ hell has been torn to pieces and the devil’s kingdom and power utterly destroyed … so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us.”
Regretfully, even though all the enemies of Jesus have been defeated, sin, death, the grave and the power of the devil, they remain on the battlefield. And the devil is still trying to convince us that the final victory is his. Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher of the late 1800s awoke one night because he felt his bed shaking. Thinking it was caused by a thunderstorm, he looked outside but saw no clouds in the sky. “I woke up and looked, and there was Satan standing at the foot of my bed. Satan himself was shaking my bed. I looked at him and said, ‘Oh, it’s only you,’ and rolled over and went back to sleep.”
The devil is trying to convince you that he has won. Yes, he wants you to give in and give up. He wants you to question and doubt. That’s what he whispers into your ear on the Holy Saturdays of life. We all know them. It’s the day after. It’s the day after the death. It’s the day after your heart broke, the day after he died, the day after the relationship ended, the day after the job was lost, the day after the diagnosis, the day after a dream was shattered, the day after a part of your life, a part of yourself, has died.
I wish that our Holy Saturdays lasted only one day. The tears, the pain, the anguish, and the silence. It may be one day on the church’s calendar but rarely is it only one day on the calendar of our lives. Holy Saturday is a time of waiting. How long O Lord, how long? It’s a time of wondering when it will get better, or if it will ever get better. It’s a time of asking what’s next and whether there will even be a next.
That is why Jesus’ descent into hell is such an important part of the Easter story and offers the assurance of hope. We may not have seen what happened, and we may choose to believe that where Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus on Good Friday, is where he stayed. But Jesus descended into hell, there he defeated the devil, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, upon those in broken lives, and in torn relations, he is bestowing life. And he is doing that now for you and for me, so that being set free from anxiety, fear and sin, we may walk with him in newness of life.
My friends, that is the good news of Easter. It’s no longer Good Friday and the Holy Saturday of waiting has passed. It’s Easter Sunday and everything has changed. Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.