By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
In anticipation of a joyous Easter, churches are preparing for one of the busiest Sundays of the year. The parking lots will be filled and the pews will be overflowing. All are looking forward to the triumphant message of Easter morning: “He is risen.” For Christians, those words stir something deep within our souls. “Risen, indeed” is the joyous refrain we offer to the message of the defeat of death.
It is Holy Week and each day has a precious meaning. On Maundy Thursday, we remember the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. On Good Friday, we turn our focus to the Passion of Christ and the suffering on the Cross. And on Easter Sunday, we declare the victory of the Risen Savior. But we often forget about Holy Saturday. In truth, our Saturday before Easter is a day filled with cooking and shopping. But I would argue that Holy Saturday is perhaps the most important day of this sacred week.
Holy Saturday is the silence of a period which straddles death and life; it is the silence of work done and yet unfinished. That silent and holy Saturday is the space between mourning and rejoicing; it is a time in which death has not yet been defeated, nor can victory be proclaimed. Holy Saturday is a time of doubt and unbelief. It is a time of a descent into hell.
Many of us spend quite a bit of our time in this liminal space that Holy Saturday represents: struggling with doubt, struggling with hell on earth, and struggling with work insistent and yet unfinished. We live in the space of justice delayed and justice denied. We live in the space of dreams deferred and dreams deterred. We cannot declare defeat, nor can we declare victory. It is a time in which God feels absent or silent. It is the pinnacle of all the times we cry to God, “help my unbelief.”
Holy Saturday is the tomb of parents mourning the deaths of their murdered children, with no hope that justice will prevail. Holy Saturday is the tomb of families at the borders who must choose between uncertain life or inevitable death. Holy Saturday is the tomb of those holding a vigil at a loved one’s bed in hospice. Holy Saturday is the tomb of a mother who must choose between feeding her babies or paying the rent. Holy Saturday is tomb of barren wombs, lack of love and healthy touch, and few choices for the future. Holy Saturday is the place where hope unborn has died.
There is a ritual in some churches which commemorate Holy Saturday. It involves blowing out candles, extinguishing all the lights of the sanctuary, and then waiting in silence, but with great expectation, for the coming dawn. Sometimes there is an empty coffin present at the altar. It is a powerful worship experience to simply sit with death and all of the various representations of death: doubt, fear, loneliness, disbelief, and weariness. You know that the dawn will come, that the lights will be turned back on, and the candles re-lit. But sitting in the silence of Holy Saturday prepares your heart for a resurrection and a rebirth.
Perhaps this is all that faith is: an assurance that even when things are at their dimmest, light will surely come and illuminate the darkness. Even in the silence, a voice can speak words of comfort. Even in the presence of death, a new circle of life has already begun. And so, during Holy Saturday and throughout our lives, we wait in the silence and in the stillness to hear the voice that says to us in the midnight hour: “be still and know that I am God.”
Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is also an Associate Professor of Religion & Literature. She blogs at Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar and you can find her on Twitter @YNPierce.