In the centuries after Christianity emerged from the catacombs, the Church of Rome made an annual Lenten pilgrimage to a series of “station churches” at which the Bishop of Rome led his flock in prayer over the remains of one or another of the early martyrs. On the morning of Holy Saturday, however, the Church of the first millennium kept “station” not at a particular basilica made holy by the relics of martyrs and the prayers of those who have venerated them, but in her religious imagination. There was no Mass during the day, as there was no Mass on Good Friday. In the evening, as the sun set, the Roman Church would gather at the papal cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran (“mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world”) to await the dawn of Resurrection. But Holy Saturday itself was a moment to enter reflectively into the divine rest.
Twenty-first century Christians can share in that experience through the readings appointed for this day in the Catholic Church’s Liturgy of the Hours.
• In the first selection in the Office of Readings (Hebrews 4:1–13), the author ponders this unique day of religious silence by reference to the Sabbath that God decreed for the seventh day, so that he might rest “from all his work which he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3). The divine promise, in creation, was that humanity might also enter that Sabbath rest. Sin changed not the promise but its realization, which required human cooperation. Our ancestors “did not benefit” from God’s word and fell away from the righteous path God had pointed out, arousing the divine wrath: “Therefore I swore in my anger that they should not enter my rest” (Psalms 95:11).
The God of creation — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus — does not renege on his promises, however, nor is his anger the essence of his being. He is the Father, who welcomes the Prodigal Son back from his foolishness, restores to him the dignity of his squandered sonship, and invites him to re-enter his family home, where he may be at rest. And so, the author of Hebrews writes, God “again . . . sets a certain day,” a new day of Sabbath rest: That rest is the Kingdom of God come in its fullness, the Kingdom announced in the person and mission of Jesus. The key to opening the gates of that Kingdom is the Son’s obedience to the Father’s will, which makes sonship possible for all who believe in the Son.
Thus the letter to the Hebrews invites the Church to continue its reflection on the cosmic drama of creation and redemption that began on Good Friday and will continue through Easter by pondering, in holy silence on Holy Saturday, the rest — the eternal Sabbath — that awaits the faithful.
• The second selection for Holy Saturday in the Office of Readings is taken from an ancient Greek homily for Holy Saturday; its author is unknown to history. That anonymous preacher also remarks on the silence of this day that is in-between: “There is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.” Stunned by the epic drama that took place yesterday, when “the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, and earth shook and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51), nature itself is quiet: “The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh.”
Yet the King, while asleep in the tomb, is not inactive. Rather, as our unknown Greek homilist puts it, “he has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.” As centuries of Christian iconography, following the Apostles Creed, have depicted the scene, Jesus at his death descended into the land of the dead. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church writes, “he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the good news to the spirits imprisoned there.” Today’s ancient homilist, exercising the Church’s religious imagination, suggests the message he brought:
“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. . . . I did not create you to become 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 one person and we cannot be separated. . . .