Holy Saturday and Sabbath Rest

'Harrowing_of_Hell',_15th_century_English_alabaster_relief_with_traces_of_poychrome_and_gilding

Let me begin this sermon by offering an explanation of tonight’s service. Given that this is normally a 5pm Saturday Mass, it places us in a liturgical no man’s land. It is really too early in the evening to have an Easter celebration and it is even too early to do an Easter Vigil because that should be done either after dark on Saturday or very early on Sunday morning. And we are forbidden by the Church to celebrate a Mass on this day.

But this liturgical bind is really a blessing. I say that because it allows us to recognize Holy Saturday for what it is rather than jumping from Good Friday to Easter. It is a more ancient custom to allow this day to stand on its own. It is a day to focus on Christ in the tomb. It is a quiet time and this quiet time offers us several lessons.

First as we focus on Christ in the tomb we are quickly confronted by our own mortality. We just read from Job. “But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last and where is he?

 That is a difficult question but it is an important one to ask. When you breathe your last, where will you be? Foolish people live their lives avoiding that question. They live as if they will never die but I’ve done some extensive research and I have determined that none of us are going to get out of here alive. Years ago I had a friend say to me. “The doctors have told me that I am terminal” and I said to him, “Truth is we all are, so let’s get you ready.”

The Scripture says, “Teach me to number my days that I may present to you a heart of wisdom.” It is when we face our mortality and realize how short life really is, that we start living our lives in light of eternity. It is when we face our mortality that instead of letting life happen to us we live with it with purpose.

How often we hear of folks having a near death experience and coming out of it with a new appreciation for every day that they are alive. But it doesn’t have to take getting hit by a train to make us come to that realization. The Scriptures remind us all through that man is like the grass that is here today and gone tomorrow. Jesus in the tomb reminds us that one day it will be you and me in the grave so we live today in light of that fact and we make our lives count. Numbering our days make us better stewards of each day.

A second lesson from this day has to do with rest. On Friday when Jesus said, “It is finished” and it was indeed finished. He drank the cup that the Father had given Him to drink. There was nothing else for Him to do and so on Saturday He entered His Sabbath rest. That in turn has a direct impact upon us. The writer of Hebrews says, “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Heb 4:9,10).

The life we live as Christians is to be lived in the context of the Sabbath rest that Jesus gives us. We take off the burden of good works and we live in the context of grace. It doesn’t mean that there is not work for us to do. There is plenty for us to do as we work and pray for Christ’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. But the Sabbath rest means that we don’t work like our salvation depends on it, because it doesn’t.

When I was in college I went to a Christian conference where one of the speakers was trying to exhort us to be diligent for Christ. But he went too far and actually said that we are the hands and feet of Christ and we need to get out there and do our job because if we fail then God fails. My first reaction as a 19 year old kid was to feel the weight of the world come on my shoulders. It is up to me to keep God from failing? I can barely handle four classes and finish my term papers and I am also supposed to prop up God?

But as I thought it through I realized that he was simply wrong. God does not need us in order for God to be successful. As Jesus said if we refuse to obey He is capable of raising up the stones to do so.

Christ has already accomplished all that needed to be done for our salvation. This means that we work from a point of peace, knowing that Christ has already won the victory. We work as His coworkers, knowing that He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. We work with the knowledge that He is with us always even to the end of the ages. We work not to fulfill a need of God’s, we work because our cup runneth over. Beth and I recently sold a piece of property and as we were discussing what to do with the proceeds I said to her, “Now remember we have to tithe on this.” She said back to me, “No, we GET to tithe on this.” I was coming from a place of works and Beth was coming from a place of rest. Not only is this spiritually preferable it makes for better mental and emotional health. Our lives shift from obligation to celebration.

A third lesson from meditating on Jesus in the tomb has to do with trust. As Jesus was dying He said to the Father, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” In doing this He placed Himself entirely in His Father’s hands. Jesus accepted death with total trust that His Father would fulfill the words of the prophet and not allow His servant to see corruption.

Over the years I have seen many deaths. I have seen some go out kicking and screaming and I have seen some pass so peacefully that it becomes a holy moment. It feels like a sacrament where heaven is joined to earth and earth to heaven. The key difference between the two types of deaths, as far as I have been able to discern, is the matter of trust.

But that kind of trust does not come to us magically at the end of our lives. It is cultivated throughout our lives in how we live our day to day lives. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount encourages us to have daily trust. He tells us not to be like the Gentiles who worry about food and clothing and shelter and yet how often we find ourselves worrying about those very things. He even reminds us that worrying accomplishes absolutely nothing and yet we still worry.

The antidote Jesus gives us is that of trust, realizing that our heavenly Father knows that we need these things and as surly as He provides for the birds of the air and the flowers in the field so He will provide for us. What we put on our coins in America should be the written on our foreheads.

A belief that I share with the Church Fathers about what transpired this day also deepens my trust. This theology comes from 1Peter 3:19–20 and 1 Peter 4:6 (Jesus) “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built….For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” The Church Fathers interpreted these passages to mean that Jesus descended to the dead and on this day and preached the Gospel to those who had gone before Him. It is referred to as “the harrowing of hell.” Over the centuries wonderful artwork and iconography have been done on this topic. They depict the doors of hell being blown off of their hinges and Jesus coming through the doors a cross or with keys in one hand. These are the keys mentioned in the Revelation to John were Jesus says,“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died and behold I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. In Jesus’ other hand are Adam and Eve with a train of others behind them. The harrowing of hell is not a form of universal salvation where everyone is taken out of hell. Rather it is emptying death’s prison of all those redeemed by Christ.

The reason I say that this teaching increases my trust is because I see in it Jesus as the Good Shepherd going to the nth degree to rescue His lost sheep. I see in this teaching the mercy of God that knows no limits. I see in this teaching the words of the Psalmist, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. (Ps 139: 7,8). A God that loves us with such radical love can surly be trusted.

A fourth lesson from this day has to do with expectation. Remember being a little kid and trying to go to sleep on Christmas Eve but you found it nearly impossible because of the anticipation of what Christmas Day would bring? I can only imagine that multiplied exponentially as Jesus awaited His Resurrection. While His body lay in death His spirit was alive and He knew what was coming on Sunday. How could He not be filled with anything else but joyful expectation?

And as His disciples we too are to live lives of joyful expectation. This does not mean that we live in a Pollyannaish dream world. If you live long enough there will be plenty of pain and suffering to go around. As St. Paul said, we will mourn, but the key is that we do not mourn like those who have no hope. We know what Jesus knew, and that is that death does not have the final word. Life has the final word. We look to His coming again. We look to the resurrection of our bodies. We look to being reunited with those we have loved and lost. We look to a new heaven and a new earth. We look to all things being made new. We look to being with the Lord forever. It is the joyful expectation of all of these things that put the pain and suffering of this present life in its proper perspective. We live lives with full understanding that this is Saturday and it is bad. But we also live in joyful expectation that Sunday is coming.

On this day Jesus entered His Sabbath rest, which in turn allows us to enter ours. On this day He descended to the dead and ransomed the dead. So on this day we proclaim with St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory, O death, where is your sting?” We will save our “Alleluias” for tomorrow.

 

 

 

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