“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence.” So begins an anonymous ancient homily on Holy Saturday. But what is so strange? Why is the entire earth silent and still? “The King is asleep.” “God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles in fear.”
The Apostles Creed declares that the dead Jesus “descended into Hell,” and this early homily informs us as to what Jesus did in so descending: “He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.” He wanted “to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve.” Because of their sin, Adam and Eve were cast out of the primordial good garden of life. In death, they became prisoners of the shadowy netherworld, and all their fallen prodigy have followed them below.
On this silent Saturday, Jesus, the Son of God and the son of Adam loudly declares: “I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held 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 only one person and we cannot be separated.”
On this silent Saturday, Jesus is among our dead ancestors and what He declares to them today He will fulfill tomorrow – the day of His Resurrection. In rising glorious from the dead, Jesus sets all captives free. All who are baptized into Him are recreated in His glorious image, and so are set free from the bondage of sin and death’s hellish curse.
As the Son of God first formed Adam and Eve in His image and likeness, so now the risen Jesus becomes the new risen and glorious Adam, the father of a new human race. Moreover, following their rebirth in the Spirit-filled waters of baptism, the faithful are ushered into the Eucharistic banquet. There they will partake of the risen body of Jesus and drink His risen blood. Thus, He comes to dwell in them and they in Him, for they become one person in Christ, the Lord.
Jesus further tells Adam and Eve: “For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.” Then Jesus bids Adam and Eve to behold him:
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
Jesus’ passion and death become the saving means through which Adam’s fallen race is healed of sin and death – recreated in His own divine and risen likeness. Jesus, as the all-holy high priest, offered Himself as the all-holy sacrifice unto His Father, and in that atoning sacrifice He transformed the garden of death, the garden wherein he was buried, into a garden of life. The Cross becomes the tree of life planted in earth’s new Paradise. As the Son of God once placed Adam and Eve in the garden, so now the risen Jesus places His newborn children into the heavenly garden of eternal life.
So, Jesus serenely concludes His sojourn among those who were living in darkness and the shadow of death by again directing them: “Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now with you.” Though He once stationed cherubim to guard Adam and Eve as slaves, so now Jesus will have the angels worship them. The cherubim will form a throne that will swiftly bear them up into the heavenly banquet, for “the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”
Through His death and resurrection, Jesus has burst open the gates of Hell. Satan trembles. The chains of sin and the shackles of death are torn asunder. Jesus has grasped the hands of Adam and Eve, and by His strong arms and firm hands, He has drawn them forth, with all their offspring, from their graves. Something stranger and more wonderous has now happened. The sleeping King is now awake. He is alive and in our midst. Tomorrow, on Easter-morn, Jesus will say to us: “Rise, let us leave this place, this shadowy grim place of sin’s death, and let us together enter into the light of my Father’s heavenly kingdom.”
*Image: A modern iconic representation of the 11th-century fresco known as the Anastasis, located in the former Chora Church in Istanbul, which was converted into a mosque in the 16th century, then into a museum in 1945, and, in 2020, became the Kariye Mosque. In situ:
You may also enjoy:
Joseph Ratzinger’s God’s Concealment on Holy Saturday
Matthew Hanley’s Good Holy Saturday