Personally speaking this Easter has been a great spiritual blessing. A case in point was certainly my participation in the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great of the Holy and Great Saturday at the Greek Catholic church of Our Lady of Damascus in Valletta on Holy Saturday morning.
Holy Saturday is a profound and an intense moment which aptly demonstrates God’s limitless mercy. The mystery of Holy Saturday is vividly present in our everyday busy lives.
But what is Holy Saturday all about? In his General Audience on the Holy Week of March 23 2016, Pope Francis explained this special day in the following manner:
“Holy Saturday is the day of God’s silence. It must be a day of silence. We must do everything possible so that it is a day of silence, as that Day, which was the day of God’s silence. Jesus placed in the sepulcher shares with the whole of humanity the tragedy of death. It is a silence that speaks and expresses love as solidarity with all those ever abandoned, which the Son of God reaches filling the emptiness that only the infinite mercy of God the Father can fill. God is silent, but out of love. In this day love, that silent love, becomes expectation of life in the resurrection”.
What the Holy Father is saying is that Holy Saturday’s silence is active because God’s saving work goes on. It is true that, as the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday in the Christian Oriental Church puts it, “Great and Holy Saturday is the day on which Christ reposed in the tomb … This is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works. . . .” Yet this is just one facade of the whole Easter mystery. On Holy Saturday Christ continued his saving work in Hades.
The great influential Orthodox priest, teacher and writer, Fr. Alexander Schmemann,has this to say about Holy Saturday:
“We sing that Christ is ‘. . . trampling down death by death’ in the troparion of Easter. This phrase gives great meaning to Holy Saturday. Christ’s repose in the tomb is an ‘active’ repose. He comes in search of His fallen friend, Adam, who represents all men. Not finding him on earth, He descends to the realm’ of death, known as Hades in the Old Testament. There He finds him and brings him life once again. This is the victory: the dead are given life. The tomb is no longer a forsaken, lifeless place. By His death Christ tramples down death”.
The Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday eloquently supports what Schmemann is saying when its sings:
“Today Hades cries out groaning: I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary. He came and destroyed my power. He shattered the gates of brass. As God. He raised the souls I had held captive. Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord!”
It is interesting noting that the icon which the Oriental Church traditionally uses on the Easter Solemnity is precisely that of Christ’s descent into Hades. In other words, the very same icon made use for worship on Holy Saturday. In this special icon Christ is represented in radiant hues of white and blue. He is standing on the shattered gates of Hades. His outstretched arms are joining hands with Adam and the remaining Old Testament righteous He has found there. Lovingly He takes them out from the kingdom of death. Thus, by His death He tramples death.
As the “Ancient Homily” of the early Church for Holy Saturday nicely captured it: “The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. …. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives of Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve…. ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your Son…. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’”
How fruitful is God’s silence! When nothing seems to be happening God is always up to something!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap