(19 April 2014)
by Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
“So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock.”
The scene of the burial of Jesus is one of the most tender in all of scripture for me. Matthew’s gospel tells us it is Joseph of Arimethea who asks for Jesus’ body. In John’s gospel, Nicodemus is there too. His presence makes me believe that somehow he did understand Jesus when he had that nighttime conversation about being born again. And while scripture does not mention Mary the Mother of Jesus in the story of his burial, the great Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo has poignantly depicted in the Pieta the depth of tenderness between mother and son as Mary holds the broken body of Jesus.
These scenes are a prelude to Holy Saturday. While the movement of Palm Sunday has been one of entry, and the movement of Easter morning will be rising, the movement of Holy Saturday is one of descent. Jesus must descend from the cross into the depths of the earth before he will be raised on ‘the third day.’
With Earth Day occurring two days after Easter, it is fitting to think about Holy Saturday as a ‘day of the earth.’ The Psalms attest to the glory of God in all of creation, and the apostle Paul reminds us that all of creation groans for redemption. Jesus’ descent into the arms of the earth indicates that salvation is a cosmic event.
Wendy Wright, in her book The Rising, indicates that in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, “salvation is envisioned not primarily as the rescue of the individual sinner through the sacrifice on the cross but as the transfiguration of the entire world through the descending-ascending process of God becoming what we are and our becoming what God is.” (p. 108)
(Art: Dana Gray)
Holy Saturday invites us to move beyond a privatized understanding of salvation to consider our relationship to the earth. Part of my Lenten discipline this year was to slow down and be more present to the beauty of creation. I practiced this by taking long walks most of the days of Lent, and instead of seeing myself as an observer of nature, I imagined myself as a participant in the beautiful scenes — sort of like a Lectio Divina walk in nature! To my amazement and wonder, I experienced creation reaching out to me. It was as if the birds, the limbs on the trees, squirrels, and deer were all coming to meet me on my walk. I experienced myself as part of a great cosmic whole that emanates from God’s love and keeping (as Julian of Norwich would say).
“For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”
1 Peter 4:6
Scripture and tradition speak of another descent Jesus makes on Holy Saturday — his descent to Sheol, or Hades, to redeem the righteous dead. This ‘harrowing of hell,’ as it is often called, grows out of tradition in the Hebrew Bible, which indicates that in the messianic age God will vindicate all those who have died a righteous death. The iconography of Eastern Orthodox Christianity regarding this tradition depicts Jesus riding his cross down into the depths of the earth and bringing such figures as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and even the good thief on the cross up from the grave.
Not only is this descent a symbol of the depth of divine compassion, it also points to the corporate dimension of resurrection. It is tempting to think about resurrection as a one-time individual event, which guarantees eternal life. Holy Saturday reminds us that out of the depths of God’s compassion, new life is always happening, and we are invited to participate through our acts of compassion.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that the same spirit who raised Christ from the dead dwells in each of us. So, this Easter Sunday, while we are singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” look for signs of resurrection in the faces of people around you.