Holy Saturday, the day of death, the day of the tomb
Hi, all. I was doing some internet surfing on the subject of this day (holy saturday) and came across this excellent article. In a way, it’s hard to contemplate our Lord being dead, really dead, cold and in a tomb. We tried to grasp that reality last Sunday, in our funeral for Jesus. But today is another day to stop at the tomb, to grieve, to wait — not to rush to the beauty and glory of Easter.
The earth is silent and waits.
Holy Saturday, the day of death
Saturday, April 07, 2007
A few weeks back, the story of the “Jesus tomb” dominated the news cycle. Michael Coren dismantled the claims in these pages, and after several days of near-universal debunking by archaeologists and historians of religion, the story died as the publicity stunt it was. James Cameron did not find Jesus’s tomb, but there once was such a tomb. Not for long, but for long enough.
Today is the day of that tomb. We call it Holy Saturday, and it is the day of stillness, the day of death. Good Friday is the day of dying, which means it is a day of living, for to die well is the crown of a life lived well. Tomorrow is the day of new life, the Easter joy of resurrection, of life on the other side of death. Today, though, is the day of death, the day of the tomb.
The Christian belief is that the tomb was necessary. The atonement offered by Jesus on the Cross was a real sacrifice, a real passion, a real death — and a dead man needs a real tomb. Yet this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, was not to be held by death, for He too was God, the author of life. In the custom of those days, three days was the sure sign that death had wrought its destruction. And so Jesus would spend His three days in the tomb, but only the minimum necessary: Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday dawn. He needed the tomb, but not for a moment more than necessary.
The Gospel of St. John tells us about Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, who died and had been in the tomb four days. Four days. Hopeless. The detail is important, for Jesus had raised others who were freshly dead, in a matter of hours. Perhaps they had not really died. But four days in the tomb is different. Martha makes the point in the earthy style typical of the Gospels: “But Lord, there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” And then Jesus raises him from the dead.
Lazarus comes out of the tomb, but another day he would need it again. Life on Earth is temporary, life in the tomb is permanent. The good news of the great reversal at the heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus came so that life would be permanent, and the tomb only temporary.
So temporary, in His case, that there was no time for a proper anointing, let alone a mausoleum with inscriptions. After the death of Jesus on the Cross, there is a hurry to lay Him in the tomb before the Sabbath begins. Today is that Sabbath, the day of rest marked by the rest in the tomb.
Christians can’t help looking to tomorrow, to Easter, eager for the activity of life over against rest in the tomb. The Church’s liturgy reflects that holy eagerness, as this very evening the great vigils announcing the joy of Easter are celebrated in the cathedrals and churches and chapels of the Christian world. Yet in the eagerness for Easter we should not forget to stop at the tomb.
The late Pope John Paul II once reflected on the reality and finality of the tomb, calling this a “vast planet of tombs.” The Earth is truly our home; we live upon it for a short while, and are laid in it forever. The tomb forms the definitive destination of each life, no matter how many stops there may be on the way. A human life is a longer or shorter journey toward the tomb, and therefore the God who became man needed a tomb. Without one, His life would have been less human.
So the search for the tomb of Jesus is not wrong, just very late. The holy women who went out that first Easter morning found the tomb, but not the living Christ, for one does not find the living among the dead. Since that time Christians have come to worship at the empty tomb just outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem, for that tomb marks the dawn of the day when the tomb itself became not a destination but a way station.
There was a Jesus tomb. But now it is empty, and that emptiness is the promise already given of the day when all the tombs shall be empty.