Up until last year, I had not remembered that there was a liturgy in our Prayer Book for Holy Saturday. I had always thought it was Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil on Saturday night (which is basically just Easter), and then Easter Sunday. But when the pandemic hit last year, we realized doing a virtual Easter Vigil just would not work – there is so much reading, singing, doing things by candlelight, and the drama of being huddled together that we had to let the Liturgy wait until we could gather again. So instead, we turned to this tiny liturgy, whose entire content is listed on one page of the Book of Prayer Book.
Still in a pandemic a year later, I found myself curious about this liturgy we are entering once again. The truth is, the earliest accounts of Holy Week observances had no liturgies for Holy Saturday, with the exception of private use of the daily office.[i] Instead, this day has simply been known as the “quietest day of the Christian year.”[ii] That the church has not always gathered on Holy Saturday and that Christians might see this day as a day of quiet makes a lot of sense. The Church says so much this week – from our waving of palms last Sunday, to our gathering around the upper room table to wash feet and share bread, to devastating betrayals of Jesus, to the vivid walk toward the cross, to the finality of the closed tomb. We almost need a day of quiet to let the drama sink in and wrap our heads around what this week means.
But I suspect if your life is anything like mine or most Americans, we are not sitting quietly in our homes from 3:00 pm on Friday until Easter morning. Instead, we are filling the time with preparations – tending to all the things we did not do while we were attending church this week: dying eggs, entertaining children, stuffing Easter baskets, prepping Easter day meals, cleaning the house, or just having fun. There is nothing inherently wrong about those things, but this year, of all years, I am grateful for a Holy Saturday liturgy. With this last year of suffering through a pandemic and reflecting on our broken humanity’s inability to eliminate racism or mend civil discourse, even with the rise of vaccines, I find our country is in a Holy Saturday kind of time. We have been through a tumultuous experience and are not yet healed.
That is why I like having Job as a companion today. Job’s words are stark. As Job sits in the ashes of his sorrows, having lost his children, his livelihood, and his support system, he describes the brutality of life. He talks about how trees have hope – even when cut down, they can sprout again, and new life can be born out of death. But not so with humans, he argues. No, when their bodies lay in the ground, there is nothing but death. Job captures the essence of this day. There is a similar finality at the door of Jesus’ tomb this day. All the hopes and dreams, all the joys and blessings, all the promises of new life are sealed away in a tomb. And after such a violent death and the threat for those who followed Jesus, there is no wonder why the Church has considered this a quiet day. Unlike the quiet waiting of Advent, when the church is brimming with expectation and bustling around in preparation for Christ’s birth, today is a day of silence devoid of restorative peacefulness. As one scholar says, “The waiting of Advent is like having warm bread in the oven. By contrast, the air of Holy Saturday smells more like stale smoke, as though something essential was burned the day before.”[iii] As our lives are not yet pandemic free, and as threats of spikes in cases emerge, we know that kind of waiting all too well.
And yet, in the very last verse of today’s reading, the despondent Job says something totally counter to everything else he has said. “If mortals die, will they live again?” Job asks. For someone who has boldly proclaimed the finality of human death, his question is a question that only a person of faith can ask – a question that reveals the tiniest bit of hope still left in Job. Job communicates in this question a truth we people of faith hold dear: no matter how bad the suffering, no matter how prevalent the experience of dread and doom, no matter how deep the failures of humanity seem to run, there is always hope. The disciples and community surrounding Jesus Christ do not know that hope yet. But as followers of Christ 2000 years later, we now stake our entire identity on the risen savior.
So yes, receive the gift of stale smoke this day. Sit in ashes with Job and mourn all in your life that feels dead. Take time in this busyness of life for some uneasy silence. Name all those who have been lost due to disease and violence. But keep asking the questions. Hold on to the hope, however infinitesimally small that God can indeed redeem us – us as individuals, us as country, us as Church. Holding the two in tension is difficult – we want to rush to Easter and forget all that has happened. But letting the power of all that has happened speak to us today will allow us to know the astounding power of resurrection much more deeply tomorrow. Job, Jesus, and this faith community here will pull up a chair and sit with you by the ashes until we can reap with tears of joy tomorrow. Amen.
[i] William Joseph Danaher, Jr., “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 310.
[ii] Christina Braudaway-Bauman, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 312.
[iii] Braudaway-Bauman, 312