Here are some reflections I put together a few years ago for a talk I gave to seminarians on Holy Saturday. The text is not perfect – perhaps grammatically, definitely typographically, and probably less theologically – but I still like it. Keep in mind the audience I wrote it for, which explains some of the terminology and the occasional Latin quotation. I hope it provides some helpful food for thought and prayer.
“Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear.” With this powerful text “from an ancient homily” (which can be found here), we started the second reading in today’s office of readings. It helps us to imagine what it was like that Sabbath after the crucifixion. This text only describes what Jesus was doing, but I think it’s interesting to take a general look at all the key players in this drama.
First, let’s consider Jesus and Satan. The reading illustrates very movingly what Jesus is doing. His body is in the tomb, in apparent defeat. But on the contrary, He is not defeated. His body is not decaying. When the author of that ancient homily says that Jesus is asleep, it’s not entirely just an image. Jesus said that Lazarus was sleeping, because he intended to go raise him from the dead. It was a metaphor – Lazarus’ body was dead and decaying, and Lazarus would never rise under his own power. Jesus is truly dead too, but his body is not suffering the normal effects of death, and he will arise, not by the power of another, but by the power of his own divinity. “I have the power to lay down my life, and have the power to take it up again. This commandment I have received from my Father,” he had said earlier. So there’s something deeper and more proper when we say that the King is asleep than when Jesus said that Lazarus was asleep.
While his body is at rest, the Son of God is anything but. The reading uses brilliant imagery to describe the descent of Jesus’ soul among the dead to open the gates of heaven and lead the patriarchs, prophets and righteous people who came before him out of darkness into light.
The imagery is just that – imagery – because the souls of the departed didn’t have their bodies yet. We really don’t know much about intermediate eschatology, that time between our death and the resurrection on the Last Day. However, the imagery helps, because in this life our primary source of knowledge is through our senses, so I am going to stick with it.
Jesus is the triumphant King. He has fulfilled the Father’s will to the very last detail. He is welcomed by the heavenly hosts. Satan is confused and overthrown. Unlike every human being who has died before, Satan has no power over this soul. He was waiting by the cross, so to speak, to seize Jesus’ soul in victory – and instead, he has seen the full glory of the victorious Son of God, who not only is not subject to Satan’s sway, but suddenly robs Satan of his power over so many souls that had hoped to hold forever.
The whole sequence from Holy Thursday onwards had seemed to the devil like a free run across a football field into the end zone. Just when he crosses the line and raises his hands in victory, he finds that God has switched the end zones on him, he has been playing for God’s team for the entire second half, and has just made a definitive touchdown against himself. He still has a few points – Judas and Pilate are probably in the bag – but even some field goals he was sure of have been taken away. Jesus forgave the high priests and the soldiers and the good thief on the Cross. So Satan knows he has lost the war, and the most he can do is hope to win a few more battles on earth, to garner for himself some of the human souls who remain blind to Christ’s victory.
Next, we can think of God the Father. It’s hard to imagine what Father was doing, because philosophy teaches us that God is beyond space and time, beyond human emotion or thought, totally transcendent, totally other. Jesus was the Son of God, but also man, so we can say a lot about him. But God the Father?
Nonetheless, the Scripture often uses human imagery to talk about God, so I think we can too, as long as we realize the limitations of our minds and language. And after all, Jesus himself taught us to relate to God as Father, which is itself a human image. So, here goes…
Any father rejoices in the victories of his son. The greater the victory, the greater the obstacles he has overcome, the greater his joy. I think we’ve all heard a father, seeing his son succeed at some difficult enterprise, say, “That’s my boy!” That is perhaps a bit too anthropomorphic to apply to God, but I can’t help but imagine God the Father having this tremendous victory as a part of his eternal imperturbable rejoicing in his own goodness; the Father rejoicing in the Son and the Son rejoicing in the Father, and their mutual love producing the Holy Spirit. Inasmuch as the work of Redemption is part of that eternal joy, part of the complete love and self-giving of the Son to the Father, we can perhaps understand why Jesus would say that he had to go, to suffer and die, in order to send the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Son, has returned to God the Father, and with him celebrates his victory before returning to earth in the Resurrection. Just like anyone who wins a contest first embraces his family before the public celebration.
God the Father welcomes him and orders all creatures on heaven, on earth, and under the earth, to praise him, as the Scripture tells us in the rest of that text we have repeatedly sung during these days: “Propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum, et dedit illi nomen quod es super omne nomen, ut in nomine Jesu omne genu flectatur caelestium, terrestrium et infernorum, et omnis lingua confiteatur, quia Dominus Jesus Christus in gloria est Dei Patris.” – Phil. 2:9-f
God the Father isn’t the only Father that Jesus has. St Joseph was waiting for him too. He was probably one of the first that Jesus took into heaven, maybe after Adam and Eve (or maybe even before them – people usually give moms and dads right-of-way). We don’t know how much Joseph understood while on earth of Jesus’ mission. He had a hard time understanding when Jesus stayed in the Temple when he was twelve years old and said he had to be “about his fathers’ business”. Maybe Jesus told him more later on, but we don’t know that for sure. Since St. Joseph died before Christ died on the cross, he could not yet enjoy the beatific vision, which would have entailed a full understanding of Jesus’ mission and his own part in it. However, surely when he died, God would have revealed that to him. And anyway, if God had given the righteous who had died the possibility of communicating with each other, he would have been able to flesh out the details in conversation with the prophet Isaiah, with Moses, King David and whatever other authors of the Messianic prophecies there may have been.
So when he witnessed Jesus triumph, it must have filled Joseph with awe and with joy. Awe, because perhaps he had not grasped initially the full implications of the responsibility that God had given him. He would probably have thought at that instant, “What if I had not been quite so quick in obeying the angel’s order to leave Bethlehem? What if I had not believed and accepted Mary as my wife after all? What if I had not…” and here we can think of all the times that Joseph, like any father, saved the child Jesus from the dangers of the world and of his own infantile curiosity. Kids are often doing dangerous things without realizing it, and although there were no electrical outlets at the time for Jesus to try to stick paper clips into, there were surely all sorts of sharp tools around Joseph’s workshop. Joseph must have been constantly on his guard to be sure nothing serious happened to the son God had entrusted to him.
From Saint Joseph, we can learn the importance of obedience to God’s plan even in little things. We know what God’s will is for us in any given moment, but we don’t know the repercussions of our acts. Every day God gives us opportunities to serve him in little ways, which we can take or leave almost without realizing it. As a priest, I’ve realized that sometimes a simple word or facial expression can make a big impression on people, for better or worse. We will only know in heaven all that was achieved through our fidelity – and what was lost through our infidelity.
So on Holy Saturday, Joseph must have been rejoicing with Jesus his Son, who would certainly have escorted him to one of the highest places in heaven, one of the best box seats to see the rest of salvation history very close to his Son. Surely at this point part of St Joseph’s heart and mind turned back towards earth, to the one member of the Holy Family who was not there for this reunion: Mary. To the earth and towards Mary is where we will now also turn our gaze.
We’ve seen that heaven was full of celebration; let’s get back to earth, where the situation seems just the opposite. What about the apostles?
The scripture doesn’t tell us much about what they did at this point. We know that they were hiding and full of fear and remorse. When we were fasting on Friday, it struck me that the apostles were probably fasting these days too. The emptiness in their stomachs must have been nothing next to the emptiness in their hearts, the Jesus-shaped hole in their lives, hopes, thoughts and emotions. He had become the center of their their lives, and now he was gone.
Not only was he gone; they had all abandoned him in his moment of greatest need. After the first reaction of fear and flight, John had followed from a distance, but he had not stood up for his Lord during the trials. Peter was probably still in tears. How could they eat, with that sick feeling of failure and grief in their stomach? When any sight of meat or blood brought back to their minds the image of Jesus’ bleeding and raw flesh after the scourging or nailed to the cross? Even those who had not dared witness the crucifixion had heard the women’s description of the scene. How could they sleep in peace, when every time they closed their eyes they saw the soldiers, the kiss of Judas, the look on Jesus’ face as they turned and fled, only looking back to see if the soldiers were behind them?
Huddled together at some place they considered a “safe house”, they hardly spoke. Only Mary, Jesus’ mother, tried to console them – she, who had had the worst time of it, who had been there at the foot of the Cross and seen her own son die. She was, perhaps, the only one who seemed to still have any hope. John probably credited it to her being in a state of shock and denial. He tried to keep her warm and calm – and quiet. But he couldn’t see what was going on in her soul.
What was going on in Mary’s soul? She was keeping all these things and contemplating them in her heart. This is what we should be doing. It used to be hard for me to pray anything but the Sorrowful Mysteries during the Rosary on Holy Saturday, but a while ago I realized that Mary must have been going over Jesus’ whole life that first Holy Saturday, and I try to pray the Joyful Mysteries looking at them like Mary did on that day.
If Jesus didn’t explain it all to her before, now she is finally understanding the whole thing. She whose soul was steeped in Scripture (as we can see from the Magnificat), was putting two and two together. The spear that pierced Jesus’ heart was the sword that pierced her heart. The “rise and fall of many” foretold by Simeon was, above all, spiritual, and she was seeing it happen. The three days in the Temple, his “Father’s house”, back when Jesus was twelve years old, correlated with the three days he’d be in the Father’s House in Heaven, and she firmly believed she would see him when he rose on the third day as he had promised, because he was doing his Father’s business.
True, Mary’s faith was being tested as never before. But she firmly believed that Jesus was the Son of God – she knew that better than anyone else on the face of the planet. She believed that his words were true, even if she didn’t understand how it could happen. At the Annunciation, she had not said, “how shall I know this will happen”, like Zachariah; she had said, “how will this happen?” The difference seems small, but is significant. She didn’t doubt the fact, she just wanted to understand how God’s plan could be worked out without contradiction. By Good Saturday, though, she has learned not even to ask that question, but just to believe.
Her hope was based on her faith. She believed Jesus was God, and that with God all things are possible. She could try to comfort the others because her hope was as solid as a rock – more solid than even the Rock of Peter. She was not crushed by her sorrow and pain because she knew there was light at the end of the darkness.
This is not to say it wasn’t painful for her. Mothers always suffer when their children do, even if it is not suffering unto death. Mary had watched her son’s message be rejected, his dignity be denied and trampled under foot, his body be beaten and whipped and nailed to a cross. She saw his beloved disciples betray him, deny him, and abandon him, with only John coming to the cross with her. She heard Jesus being mocked. She had helped clean his limp, lifeless body, and wrap it in the shroud. She who had bathed and clothed him so often when he was an infant, now washed away the blood and bound him in linen. The blood stains were, perhaps, still on her clothing.
She felt pain for his physical suffering, pain for his moral suffering, pain because she her perfect heart couldn’t stand any injustice, let alone as enormous a one as this, pain because in the end she could not accompany him as close as she would want; his spiritual, physical and mental suffering went beyond where any mere human could go. On the cross, he was humanly utterly alone, and as a consequence so was she.
She sure would have rather died than watch that. The words that the movie The Passion of the Christ puts on her lips were certainly in her heard – Let me die with you! But suffering is made palatable by love. Mary’s love was greater than ever. She already had more than enough reasons to love Jesus, but witnessing his final acts as a man on earth had only increased, if possible, her love. She had seen him sacrifice himself in fulfillment of the Father’s plan. Sacrifice himself for her and for all humanity. She saw in him a level of courage, generosity, self-control, love, patience, and forgiveness that went beyond anything she’d ever seen even in Jesus himself during the many years they’d been together. Her heart was overwhelmed with that unique amalgam of motherly love strengthened through suffering, as well as the human love that any perfect heart would have when faced with a person of perfect virtue, and the total love of adoration that she owed him as God. That faith, hope and love were rewarded when she met her Son, risen from the Dead, on Easter morning. That encounter is not described in Sacred Scripture, but seems quite certain nonetheless.
Like Mary, let contemplate today the whole life of Christ in the light of his passion and death and resurrection. The liturgical celebrations of these days, with the reliving of these moments in which Christ showed the extent of his love for us should increase our faith, our hope and our love.
I’d also like to invite us all to look at our own lives and learn to be more like Mary in the way we see it. Our lives only have full meaning in the light of the Cross and the Resurrection. Our hope can never fail even when humanly speaking it seems all is lost. When we see what Jesus suffered for souls, we have to love others that much more – like Mary who, at Jesus’ word, adopted all humanity as her own children.