The Slumber of Holy Saturday

The Sleep of Holy Saturday

Christ in Limbo by Fra Angelico (ca. 1450).

Holy Saturday has come and gone, but is it not the symbolic day of our Faith on earth? In the 70s, a popular mantra arose that we are an “Easter people.” Yet the abuses continue, dissent is institutionally maintained, the wicked go unchastised, and the faithful continue to suffer. Are not our pilgrim years on this world more like Holy Saturday than Easter Sunday? We stand closer to the rejection and the crucifixions of Good Friday, but we also have the promise of a life we can now only live in hope.

We know all too well the power of cancer and divorce to rip us apart; we read all too often the senseless death of an inner-city youth, or the plight of thousands of homeless refugees. We know terrorists by name, and the evils of Margaret Sanger are held up by the intelligentsia as the way forward. Yet, at the same time, we know that this is not the world our Father in Heaven wants for us, and in order to remedy all things through love, he sends his Son to assume to himself this entire jumble. That convergence of union is his Church, and what we celebrate, is not simply this uniting of earth to heaven, but that those on earth have been made heavenly—“partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) as we pray so often.

If that is so, our Holy Saturday posture has to be one of trust. It has to be one of praying with the filial boldness of those convinced of the Father’s love as his own adopted children, children who live in a world marked by sin, but a world that can never define who we are. That is where the full experience of Easter is ours still to come! We have been promised by God’s own nail-marked flesh that Love is infinitely stronger than death, but that is a truth we hold on to as an unrealized promise as we bury our loved ones, or watch the fallouts of the most recent bombings on the nightly news. This is Holy Saturday, knowing that heaven exists in spe (in hope) and not yet in re (in reality), as Augustine of Hippo puts it.

In fact, the one day we met during Holy Week, I had the students in my Saint Augustine class read some of his homilies for Good Friday. When I asked them if Easter is what ultimately saves us, why does the Church have a crucifix at the center of her worship? If it is at the Empty Tomb we find salvation and mortality’s defeat, why do we still gather under the cross? One of the students replied, “Because we all put Jesus on the cross, we are forced to face what our sins have done. The Tomb is utter grace and we had nothing to do with that—it is God’s free gift to those humble enough to run there.” I love this generation of young Catholics: they see deeply and know they are more than what much of the world wants to define them as being.

Easter Sunday, and not Good Friday, saves our souls. For if it weren’t for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there would be no Christians, no Christianity, no Church. But you and I are asked to live in a world not of the Parousia, where God’s will is realized easily, and all sing in one accord. We live not in heaven, but in a war zone; the great Commander has descended and continues to marshal his ragtag group of faithful followers to this day. If those followers look only at Good Friday, they often become filled with numbing sorrow, and can lash out of their own pain and hurt; if they look only at Easter, they can often become Pollyanna-ish, and dismissive of the battles being waged in our halls of government, our schools, and even in our Church. We must remain in Holy Saturday: a people who know pain, but a people who are even more promised perfection.

It has always struck me that one of the more ancient images of Holy Saturday is that of sleep. Dating back to the early parts of the second century, delivered certainly by a bishop probably in modern-day Syria, we can still hear one of the most beautiful homilies of all time. This anonymous episcopus (priests preached regularly only centuries later) has his congregation imagine that Jesus, their great King, has now descended into earth to slumber in the Father’s love. Such love propels him to go to sinful humanity in the hells of our disobedience, and raise us up from the kind of slumber that paralyzes:

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror, and was still, because God slept in the flesh, and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly, he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner, Adam, and his fellow-prisoner, Eve, from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror, and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.” And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand, he raises him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you, and your descendants, now speak, and command with authority those in prison: “Come forth,” and those in darkness: “Have light,” and those who sleep: “Rise.” I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me, and I in you, together, we are one undivided person.

Christ goes not to the places of our lives where we feel strong and self-assured, but into the hells and the pains, the places where we “sleep” so as to avoid intimacy and relationship. We can so slumber using television, alcohol, pornography, or just old fashioned pride and gossip. There Christ comes, and holds out his hand and tells us to “Awake, o sleepers!”

Contrast this with Charles Péguy’s (d. 1914) poem, “Sleep.” The French writer and social critic, Péguy, fell for the lies of the world for a time but, disillusioned, finally came to the Church to find his worth, and the dignity he knew God intended for his world. At the Church’s door, Péguy seems to have traded his grandiose ideas of socialism and political reform for a greater appreciation of the little things that make human living wonderful. As such, he writes:

I don’t like the man who doesn’t sleep, says God.
Sleep is the friend of man.
Sleep is the friend of God.
Sleep is perhaps the most beautiful thing I have created.
And I myself rested on the seventh day.
He, whose heart is pure, sleeps. And he who sleeps has a pure heart.
That is the great secret of being as indefatigable as a child.

Have you ever thought of sleep as God’s gift? Have you ever thought of your sleep gauging your trust in the Lord?

Maybe there are two ways to live this life: one that “sleeps” through it all, covering oneself with insecurity, and an unwillingness to be touched and known—like a man who wears an asbestos suit throughout the day, unable to make sincere connections. Always the poser.

Yet, another type of sleep secures us in the Father’s love, showing him that we trust him enough to put down our phone and computers in order to spend some quiet moments with him. We trust him enough to quit worrying, and stressing and thinking we have to do everything ourselves. This is where integrity gives way to joy, where commitment flowers into peaceful trust. This is the slumber of Holy Saturday, this is the rest of the 7th day, this is the praise of the Church, and the contemplation of the Saints.

We have a lot to pray for: the new apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis on marriage and the family; that our Catholic schools and universities refuse to honor the work of politicians who labor denying the unborn life; let us continue to pray for Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil—the Missionary of Charity chaplain who was seized by ISIS in Yemen—and that this Easter Season prepares all Christians to receive the Holy Flame of Pentecost, that we may all again be one, and ever become more faithful and fruitful temples of the Holy Spirit.

May that same Spirit, who lives and
reigns with the Father, and the Son,
descend upon you,
and remain with you forever!

David Vincent Meconi, SJ About David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.