“Shrouded” in Mystery

A Theology of Holy Saturday

Entombment of Jesus, by Carl Bloch (1834-1890).

Entombment of Jesus, by Carl Bloch (1834-1890).

Holy Saturday is often the forgotten, and most neglected, day of Holy Week because it gets lost among the great liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Holy Thursday celebrates the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, with the washing of the feet, and the removal of the Blessed Sacrament in solemn procession. Good Friday allows one to share in the Lord’s passion, and venerate the cross of Christ which we, too, are called to carry daily. The Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday itself celebrate the glorious resurrection of Christ in which we hope to share.

But what is the significance of Holy Saturday? What is so holy about it? What can be so holy about a day that has no specific liturgy and, seemingly, nothing to celebrate? The holy sacrifice of the Mass is not offered until the evening. But that is the vigil for Easter Sunday, and not a celebration of Jesus’ time in the tomb. It is difficult to speak about Holy Saturday without speaking about the cross, or the resurrection. At first glance, Holy Saturday appears to be nothing more than a time of either looking backward to reflect on the cross, or looking forward, waiting for the resurrection.

But Holy Saturday does have a deep meaning that can easily be overlooked in such a somber, yet festive, season. There is, in fact, a real theology of Holy Saturday, as well as a real meaning for our daily lives. It is here that I would like to propose several ways of understanding the meaning of Holy Saturday so that our Holy Week may be a more complete celebration.

Sleeping on the Job
We read in John 19:31 that Jesus’ burial was hastened because the Sabbath, a Saturday, was approaching (cf. Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Lk 23:56). John’s Gospel begins with an allusion to the account of creation in Genesis 1. John begins his Gospel with the same words as does Genesis, “In the beginning …”1 One reads in the creation story that after “God was finished,” he rested on the seventh day (See Gn 2:1-2). In fact, if one reads the Genesis account closely, we are repeatedly told that everything that God created was “good,” every day was “good.” But only the Sabbath day, the day that God rested, was called “holy.”

In a similar way, when Christ brings about his new creation from the cross, he says, “it is finished” and immediately enters the sleep of death (see Jn 19:30). We look to the tomb of Christ on Holy Saturday, and we see our God resting on the Sabbath. This should tell us that we are about to see a new creation. On the first day of creation in Genesis, God created “light” and separated it from the darkness. On Good Friday, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land …” (27:45). One sees that, in some sense, the chaos that existed has returned with the presence of darkness. But Matthew then tells us in 28:3 that “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.” The story does not end in darkness, but in light. Light has re-entered the world again as it did at the beginning of creation.

On Good Friday, darkness came. On Holy Saturday, God rests. On Easter Sunday, the true Light rises, never to set again, and neither darkness nor death can overcome it. Christ is making all things new.

Up ‘n’ Adam
Another way to understand Holy Saturday is to recognize that the most common image of God’s relationship with his people in Scripture is that of a husband and his bride. This image is foreshadowed in the next chapters of Genesis that follow the creation account in Genesis 1. We see that Adam is alone and placed in a deep sleep. While asleep, Adam’s bride is born from his side so that she becomes a living being. She is bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh (Gn 2:23). Unfortunately, Adam fails to protect his bride from the one thing in the garden that could kill her, and as a result, both Adam and his bride were doomed to die.

But Christ is the New Adam because he did everything that the first Adam was supposed to do. We see that Christ defends his bride from the one thing that can kill her, sin. In the process of defending his bride, he gives his life to save hers. On Holy Saturday, we see the New Adam cast into the deep sleep of death. But just as Eve was born from the side of Adam when he was asleep, so Christ’s bride, the Church, is born from his side, and given new life during his time of rest as well.

We see the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on Good Friday are the very elements that continually restore life to Christ’s bride. The blood and water signify the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, without which we die. As the fourth evangelist teaches: “… no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit” (3:5) and “… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (6:53). So, the “sleep” that Christ endures on Holy Saturday is a reflection of the sleep of Adam through which his bride was given life.

Dead “Wait”
The traditional explanation of Holy Saturday is that it is a time of “waiting.” There are no accounts in Scripture of what was taking place among the disciples of Jesus, or what they were thinking on that first Holy Saturday. But John 20:19 gives some insight into what they were feeling. The disciples were behind locked doors out of fear. One gets the sense that the disciples could only think “now what?” Now what are we going to do without Jesus? Did they begin to doubt all the miracles that they had witnessed Jesus perform? Were they fooled by another false messiah? Perhaps the Pharisees and Sadducees were right, and if they were, what will they do to Jesus’ followers? The sense of fear and emptiness must have been painfully devastating. In reality, on that first Holy Saturday, the disciples of Jesus may have been a better reflection of Adam, who hid because he was afraid, than they were of Christ, the New Adam.

To Hell and Back
In the Apostle’s Creed, we say “He descended into Hell.” What was Jesus doing while he was lying dead in the tomb? In the temporal realm, the obvious answer is “nothing.” But in the spiritual realm, the answer is: “He descended into Hell.” This is supported in several places in the New Testament. St. Paul tells us that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens” (Eph 4:9-10).  Furthermore, St. Peter writes that “… being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pt 3:18-19). What does it mean that he descended into “Hell,” and what was he doing there? First, it does not mean that Christ descended into the place of torment prepared for Satan and his demons (see Mt 25:41). Scripture teaches that there is an abode of the dead that is neither heaven nor hell. It is the place of the dead referred to in Hebrew as Sheol (Gn 37:35), and in Greek as Hades (Mt 11:23).

An ancient sermon to be preached on Holy Saturday, probably written around the end of the fourth century and attributed to Epiphanius, teaches what the impact of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross accomplished for both the dead and the living.2  He writes:

God has appeared in the flesh, and Hades has swallowed him. God will sleep for a short time, and then raise those who are in Hades … He has gone to search out Adam, our first father, as if he were a lost sheep. Earnestly longing to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, he—who is both their God and the son of Eve—has gone to liberate Adam from his bonds, and Eve who is held captive along with him. … “I am your God. For your sake, I have become your son. … I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead! Arise, my seed! Arise, my form (morphē), who has been made in my image (eikōn).3

So, in this ancient sermon, one finds that the author uses the images of Adam and Eve to represent fallen humanity. It is noteworthy that this ancient author describes Christ’s search for “Adam … as if he were a lost sheep.” We are presented with the image of Christ, the Good Shepherd, carrying the lost sheep to be reunited with the rest of the flock (see Lk 15:3-7; Jn 10:1-18). It was the mission of the Apostles through the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel, or good news, to those on earth (Mt 27:19-20). But it was the mission of Christ to proclaim the good news of salvation to those who had died in God’s grace who were now “in the bosom of Abraham” (see Lk 16:22-26). The Church could not make this proclamation to the dead. Only Christ could do so. Likewise, it was only Christ who could preach the good news to those who had died prior to the crucifixion.  As noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time, but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption” (CCC 634).

So What?
This is all nice, but what does it mean for our daily lives? Imagine, for a second, what the disciples of Christ must have been thinking on that first Holy Saturday. They had heard Jesus preach, and they believed his promises. They had seen him working miracles: turning water into wine, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding a multitude of people with a few loaves and fish, and even raising a young man, named  Lazarus, from the dead. But now he who raised the dead was dead himself. All of their plans were shattered. How they must have despaired!

What about us? Have we ever felt as if God was sleeping on the job? We feel that for some reason God doesn’t care enough about us to make our plans work out the way that we want them to be.  We learn the lesson from Christ’s time of silence in the tomb that we should never despair. We see that God always has a plan for our lives, no matter how grim the situation may appear. God’s plans are always more life-giving than our own plans, and more dramatic than we can imagine.

So Christ is actually teaching us something from the tomb. We see that, in the tomb, darkness surrounds Christ who is the Light of the World. If darkness surrounded the Light of the World, how much greater must the darkness have been for the Apostles and followers of Christ? It was a darkness that led them to hide and lock the doors.

Sometimes, we, too, feel like we are surrounded by darkness. We see “the culture war” in our society, scandals, attacks on the Church, and sin in our own lives consuming us. What Christ is teaching us from the tomb is that the only way to come into the light is to fight through the darkness of our own crosses and sufferings. If darkness surrounded the mortal body of Christ, so, too, darkness will try to envelop his mystical body, his bride, the Church.

But the message of Holy Saturday is not one of despair, but one of hope. The message is one of hope because unlike the first disciples of Christ, we know the end of the story. We know that Christ has already won the battle with sin and death. Satan has lost, but he wants to discourage us so that we lose faith, lose hope, and lose love. So when the darkness of the world surrounds us, and when temptation to despair, and cynicism, close in on us, we must remember that even though evil has its hour, the resurrection is close at hand.

What about those questions the disciples must have had in the upper room? We all face those same doubts and fears in varying degrees at different times in our lives. We, too, face moments in our lives when we ask “now what?” We may sometimes wonder whether we have been fooled by our faith, and question whether it is worth believing at all. Holy Saturday gives us a unique opportunity, once a year, to ask what our lives would be like without Christ. Perhaps, we may even question whether Christ is dead in our lives, and how that ever happened.

  1. All scriptural references are taken from the NAB.
  2. Alister E. McGrath, ed. The Christian Theology Reader, second edition. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), p. 335.
  3. Ibid., 336.
Dr. Robert P. Miller About Dr. Robert P. Miller

Dr. Robert P. Miller is an assistant professor of religious studies at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, NY. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from The Catholic University of America. In addition to teaching a variety of courses in scripture, Dr. Miller also teaches theology and film, the writings of C. S. Lewis, liturgy, and world religions. He has also directed the RCIA process in his parish since 2002.


  1. Avatar Gerard J. Laskowski says:

    A very rich, deep, and thought out narrative on Holy Saturday. Fills in many of the blanks with rich thoughts from Scripture.

    • Avatar Kevin Sutton says:

      Very informative and thought provoking, I now have a whole new understanding of Holy Saturday.

  2. Avatar Joseph kamweti says:

    The narrative is so touching and enlightens our mind.thanks alot.

  3. Avatar Kevin Sutton says:

    Thank You Dr. Miller I have a whole new understanding of the significance of Holy Saturday. Well said.

  4. Avatar Joseph Chaggama says:

    Thanks Dr Miller. The theology is clear but by so reviving the holy Sabbath ain’t you condoning Sabbath rest as do the Jews or the Seventh-Day Adventist Church?

  5. Avatar Josemaria says:

    Happy Easter! I am sad to note that there is NO Celebration of Vespers on Holy Saturday.