Holy Saturday, the Still Center of All Creation

This homily by St. John Chrysostom shows that quiet of Holy Saturday conceals the hidden, salvific action of Christ, already at work in liberating souls from captivity.

I think in many ways Holy Saturday is my favorite day of the Sacred Triduum, chiefly because of this ancient homily, which is traditionally read on the morning of this day. Try reading this aloud in a church that has been stripped of its sacred appointments, and devoid of the Sacred Presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament—it will send ripples of awe down your spine.

Homily on The Lord’s Descent into Hell, by St John Chrysostom

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.

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 Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory.

At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

“I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. 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.

“Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

“See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

“I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.

“The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

Absent from View, but Not Idle

On Holy Saturday, in token of Christ’s dead body lying in the cold tomb, churches stand empty and quiet; the tabernacle door stands open and its interior is empty. Yet a sacred Host is still kept in some hidden part of the sacristy, or perhaps in a pyx in the priest’s office. This is because Christ, being God, is never really absent or idle. While the apostles and other disciples, Mary and the other women, and you and I mourn the loss of Jesus, he is not lying idle in the grave. He is busy with the work of salvation, fulfilling the hope of those who looked forward to His coming and those who hardly dared to hope, even our first Parents. The instant He breathed His last on the Cross, he began to liberate the souls bound in death.

As God’s Creative Word, the Son was, is, and ever shall be active in Creation.

Our Savior is always at work—I AM is Being Itself, but He is also eternal activity, creating, sustaining, saving. Today is a good day to remember that we must not lose hope, even for those who have departed this life. In God’s eternity, we may hope that even now our prayers can help them.

The mystery of Holy Saturday is revealed in the celebration of the Easter Vigil, when the Light of the World is restored in the Easter fire and the whole of Salvation history is rehearsed in the many Scripture readings and psalms—to remind us that what happened on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter morning not only sets the past to rights but also points to the future culmination of all things. And Holy Saturday is the still center of that cosmic Event. Enjoy the stillness, and then attend the Easter Vigil, when the light returns to this world. The whole meaning of life is to be found therein.

Learn more about the implications of this ancient homily for us all in “Good Holy Saturday,” by Matthew Hanley on The Catholic Thing.

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