Holy Saturday - Praise and Hope
Sermon preached by Melissa Nassiff on Sunday, March 29, 2015 as part of Antiochian Women's Month
All month we have been looking at the services of Holy Week and their themes. Two weeks ago Andrea Popa led us through Holy Thursday and its themes of Humility and Offering, and last week Linda Arnold’s sermon focused on the Suffering and Confession, the themes of Holy Friday. Today, the last day in this series, we'll look at Holy Saturday.
The Lamentations Service which we celebrate on Friday evening is actually the matins of Holy Saturday, sung on Friday “in anticipation.” What we focus on in this service is Christ's death and His descent into Hades, which began on the cross on Holy Friday. But even though it is about his death, the service is really not about sadness and lamenting; it's a service of praise for what Christ has done by his death, and hope for our own life after death. Praise and Hope are the themes of Holy Saturday.
After Christ died on the Cross on Holy Friday, His body was quickly taken down so it could be buried before sundown – before the Sabbath began, when the Jews were not allowed to do any work. There wasn’t time to properly prepare it for burial, so instead Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body, wrapped it in pure linen, and laid it in his own new tomb.
Most of Christ's followers believed that his work was done, that his life was over. Some of them were disillusioned; they had expected him to overthrow the Roman occupation and set up a royal kingdom here on earth. But others had been listening when he told them – as we heard in today's Gospel – that it was time to go up to Jerusalem, and that there He would be betrayed and crucified, but then on the third day would rise again. So some were still hopeful, while others grieved. Even the angels were confused, the Holy Saturday service tells us, “beholding him who sits in the bosom of the Father placed in a grave like one dead. How could the immortal One at whom the myriads of angels gaze, glorifying, be with the dead in Hades?”
But that's where he was. He “descended into hell,” as we say in the Trisagion Prayers for the Dead (and by the way, “hell’ means Hades, the place of the dead; not a place of torment or punishment as it’s commonly used today). So he descended into hell and “loosed the bonds of those who were there.” That is, He released from the power of death and corruption everyone who had ever died, from Adam and Eve onward. Since he overcame death itself, we know that now death is not final, and that it is followed by resurrection.
We affirm this belief early in the Holy Saturday service when we sing, “O Lord my God, I shall praise thy burial with funeral dirges ... O thou through whose burial the entrance of life has opened for me; and who by death caused death and Hades to die.” Paradoxically we're talking about death and burial, and yet we're praising them, and focusing on the hope we have because of them.
A few weeks ago my husband and I had a firsthand experience of that combination of praise and hope in the face of death, when we flew to Florida to attend the funeral of his brother's wife. Gloria had had cancer, and her last months had been filled with painful suffering. So as the extended family gathered for the funeral, we had mixed feelings. On the one hand we grieved her loss - we lamented that such a good and loving person had been taken from us so painfully and so young. But at the same time we rejoiced that she is with God, where, as we say in Morning Prayer for the Departed, “all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away, and where the sight of His countenance rejoices all the saints from all the ages.” Her faith was strong, right to the end, so she herself had been filled with hope about what would come next for her. For us it was also a time of joyful sorrow. We not only had an opportunity to talk about our happy memories of her, but we also had a wonderful time reconnecting with our far-flung family and getting to know new spouses and in-laws and a couple of new little nephews.
The joy and hope in the midst of sorrow that we felt at Gloria's funeral is the same combination we celebrate in the Holy Saturday service. The theme of praise and hope shows up especially in the “Lamentations” part of this service, where we sing, “In a grave they laid thee, O my Life and my Christ: and the armies of the angels were sore amazed, as they sang the praise of thy submissive love.” A little later we sing, “Right it is indeed, Life-bestowing Lord, to magnify thee. For upon the Cross were thy hands outspread, and the strength of our dread foe thou hast destroyed.” And the final part continues the paradox: “Ev'ry generation to thy grave comes bringing, dear Christ, its dirge of praises.” A dirge is a somber song of mourning or grief - and yet our dirge is filled with praises!
Toward the end of the service, typically after we have processed with the bier down Massachusetts Avenue and shared prayers and blessings with our brothers and sisters from the Greek church, we read the story of the “dry bones” from the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet, and he had a vision of a valley full of the bones of people who had died. The Lord asked him, “Can these bones live?” You or I would probably have answered, “No way, Lord! These bones are dead, they're all dried up. There's no hope for life here.”
But Ezekiel, who knew God pretty well, was not willing to say that. Instead, he answered, “Lord God, you know.” In other words, “even what seems impossible is not impossible for you.” Then the Lord told him to speak to the bones, and tell them that He was going to put them back together, and cause sinew, and flesh, and skin to grow on them, and breath to enter them, and they would live. And as Ezekiel told the Lord's message to the bones, it happened just as he said. The bodies of all these people came back together, and breath came into them, and they lived.
Then God explained that the dead bones represented all the people of Israel, who at that time were in exile in Babylon, and who had all lost hope of ever returning home to Israel. He said, and told Ezekiel to say to the people, that he was going to raise them from the “grave” of exile, where they felt dead and hopeless, and put his spirit within them, and bring them home to the land of Israel. And when that happened they would all know that He was the Lord.
We now can see that this is a prophecy for us, for all of humanity – not only the ancient Israelites in Babylon, but for all who are exiled, believing there’s no hope of returning – whether in Hades or estranged from God for whatever reason. Christ comes to the place where we are, fills us with the breath of his Holy Spirit, and raises us to life - life with Him here and now, and most especially eternal life after death. That's certainly cause for praise and hope!