Worship Suggestions for Holy Saturday

February 14th, 2012
Image © by °linda°!° | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Christian churches seem to be afraid of Holy Saturday. In some churches, no mention is made of Holy Saturday—the congregation leaves in silence on Good Friday and returns in joy and splendor on Easter morning. In others, the Easter Vigil—originally a service that began late Saturday evening, and stretched past midnight—has begun to start earlier and earlier in the day. At less than twenty-four hours after the Good Friday service in some churches, this takes something away from the idea of Jesus rising on the third day and also gives the strong impression that Easter has become another example of our culture’s need for instant gratification.

I don’t mean to imply we should do away with the Easter Vigil, but what else could we do with Holy Saturday? Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t give us many clues about what happened on that first day after Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew tells us of an interaction between Pilate and the religious authorities on that day, and Luke tells us (importantly) that “on the Sabbath they [the women] rested according to the commandment” (23:56). If nothing else, then, the Bible tells us that some of Jesus’ disciples observed the Sabbath. It is imagining that unique Sabbath, though, that gets my liturgical juices flowing and in turn makes me sad that churches tend to leap straight from the crucifixion to the resurrection without considering the day in between. There are good reasons to offer Holy Saturday worship, to imagine the pain the disciples felt upon losing Jesus (without the reassurance of the resurrection). What follows, then, are a few suggestions for how Holy Saturday might be planned.

Time to Mourn

The first suggestion is to consider allowing a Holy Saturday service to make space for those who need to mourn. The disciples, having had Jesus torn away from them, surely spent the day following his crucifixion wondering what possibly would come of the movement and were incredulous that the man they believed was the Messiah was now dead. How much worse must this day have been for someone like Peter, whose relationship with Jesus was fraught with complexity.

Many of the people in our congregations whose loved ones have died, whether recently or not, may feel depressed by Lent’s introspective focus on sin and may not yet be ready for the joyful promise of resurrection that Eastertide provides. Holy Saturday is, liturgically speaking, a day for those who mourn, bearing in mind Jesus’ promise from Matthew: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). Making room for mourning within our worship without immediately rushing to offer the good news can be a way of recognizing that sometimes we live for a spell in the Holy Saturdays of our lives.

Be Silent

The second suggestion is, whatever you do, leave lots of room for silence. Job’s three friends—though they ultimately proved to be somewhat miserable comforters—at least started off their consolation of Job in the right way: Job’s friends “sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13). There is a pain too deep for words, a sorrow beyond spoken consolation; and, imagining that first Holy Saturday, we can guess that there was much silence amid the disciples’ grieving. What do you (or can you) say, after all, when your hope has died?

Focus on Jesus

The third suggestion is to choose those hymns, prayers, and other liturgical elements that offer intimate portraits of Jesus. Just as at a funeral we remember those things about the deceased that were so dear to us, Holy Saturday can be a day of remembering the things about Jesus that are closest to our hearts. Holy Saturday worship can be an opportunity for a church to express its "memories" of Jesus through song, prayer, and word (though sentimentality should be avoided). Special times for remembrance, such as having a person or two recalling how they “met” Jesus, could be appropriate. This is not a funeral for Jesus—we all know that will be celebrated the next day—but rather a way of making personal the man who, come Easter morning, will be the resurrected Christ in glory.

Keep Tradition

Finally, keeping the other suggestions in mind, don’t forget to plan a service that incorporates your own distinctive traditions and rituals. The reminder from Luke that, even though Jesus had died, the disciples observed the Sabbath the next day, is a helpful reminder that sometimes the most familiar traditions can help us through times of pain. Entering the story as Luke tells it for a moment, there must have been a unique comfort to the disciples’ observance of the Sabbath—the familiar sounds, sights, and tastes—even the day after Jesus was crucified. In other words, times of mourning are not times for trying out the new and unusual. Translating this to the modern context, this is not to say that liturgical innovation should be avoided on Holy Saturday—indeed, even holding a solemn Holy Saturday service is something of a liturgical innovation itself. Rather, a remembrance of the day in which the world was without Jesus—the bleak day between his death and his rising—calls for immersing people in the loving arms of a familiar tradition. Every Christian church possesses myriad possibilities and resources for creating a worshipful and moving Holy Saturday service; the key is to mine the familiar for our congregations to create Holy Saturday liturgies that worship and remember the God who lived and died (and lived again) as one of us.

The effort described here—to reclaim Holy Saturday for our worship—seeks more than anything to connect ourselves with the experience of the first disciples and their pain, dismay, and—yes—unbelief at having lost Jesus. In doing so, we prepare our hearts in an extraordinary way for the inexplicable joy of Easter morning.

comments powered by Disqus