By George Weigel
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 theCatechism 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. . . . ”
“‘Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. . . . The throne formed by the 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.’”
What happened yesterday, at Calvary, touches and transforms all of history, including the past. There is nothing in the human condition that Jesus did not share, and there is nothing in the human condition that Jesus did not redeem.
This day of rest is also an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of the atonement that Jesus effected yesterday by his obedient death on the Cross. Few aspects of Christian doctrine are more misunderstood than the doctrine of the atonement. In its liberal-Protestant forms, mid-20th-century Christian theology was so put off by the idea of the divine wrath and the atoning death of Christ that it ended up stripping salvation history of its cosmic and redemptive drama; such smiley-face Christianity was famously parodied by H. Richard Niebuhr in these biting terms: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Traces of this biblical hollowness can be found in various Christian communities today, again because of a misunderstanding of the doctrine of atonement.
In Jesus of Nazareth — Holy Week, Pope Benedict XVI explained the true doctrine of the atonement, not in terms of a divine vengefulness that must be appeased, but in terms of a divine love that must be displayed and a divine image that is thereby restored. Benedict was not hesitant in describing the horror of the Cross, a horror that was in fact beyond anything we can imagine: “In Jesus’s Passion, all the filth of the world touches the infinitely pure one, the soul of Jesus Christ and, hence, the Son of God himself.” But now, there is a difference: “While it is usually the case that anything unclean touching something clean renders it unclean, here it is the other way around — when the world, with all the injustice and cruelty that make it unclean, comes into contact with the infinitely pure one, then he, the pure one, is the stronger. Through this contact, the filth of the world is truly absorbed, wiped out, and transformed in the pain of infinite love. Because infinite good is now at hand in the man Jesus, the counterweight to all wickedness is present and active within world history, and the good is always infinitely greater than the vast mass of evil, however terrible it may be.”
Here, Benedict suggested, is the answer to the charge often made against the Christian doctrine of atonement: that “it must be a cruel God who demands infinite atonement.” Such a doctrine, the critics charge, disfigures the image of God; it must be abandoned. Precisely the opposite is true, Benedict replied. The evil and injustice that disfigure the world also distort and disfigure the image of God; we cannot see God clearly through “the filth of the world.” This distortion cannot be ignored; it has to be dealt with. And that is exactly what God does: “[The doctrine of atonement] is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself. God himself grants infinite purity to the world. God himself ‘drinks the cup’ of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love, which, through suffering, transforms the darkness.”
In the silence of this day, the Church ponders the good news that some considered a folly and others a stumbling block, but that nonetheless changed the world: In the crucified Christ, now in the tomb, the eyes of faith see, not absurdity and not divine vengeance, but the ultimate demonstration of divine love.