Waiting at the Tomb on Holy Saturday: An Exercise in Authentic Love
Holy Saturday stands obliquely in Holy Week, a day when neither Mass nor any service is held before sundown. One could say Mass is not celebrated at all, for the Easter Vigil, that glorious, ever-growing cascade of light, alleluias, and scripture, belongs liturgically to Sunday more than Saturday. Besides the Divine Office, the Church suspends all services on Holy Saturday to commemorate the death and burial of Jesus Christ and to stand in solidarity with His first disciples’ experience of losing their beloved friend and Master. But Holy Saturday offers us more than a memory, it offers us the chance for renewed spiritual vigor hidden in the apparent emptiness. It’s to this loss that I want to draw our attention– this sorrowful mystery, this gaping hole where our Lord lies dead before His resurrection and the deep significance for us therein.
When Jesus died on the Cross, He experienced in His human nature the same death that we all will, with all its attendant pain, sorrow, and separation. His human soul separated from His human body, leaving behind a lifeless corpse, the tragic remains of a man betrayed and executed in the prime of His life. Most of His friends fled the scene of His arrest and the few who remained to bury Him were heartbroken. It is likely that none of them could yet understand His Crucifixion as we do, for they had not yet experienced the joy of His resurrection. No, at this point, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalen, John, and even our Blessed Mother, Mary, had nothing but the unwavering hope that God would bring good out of this tragedy. The grief and bereavement that Mary and the disciples felt were real and fresh. It is this woeful loss that Michelangelo captures in his famous Pieta and which Giuseppe Sammartino reveals in his exquisite sculpture Cristo Velato.
Try to place yourself in the scene for a moment. Consider the text of Matthew 27: 57-61, where Christ’s burial is described. Can you imagine the heavy hearts of the disciples as they carefully prepared Jesus for burial? Can you imagine their tear-strewn faces as they offered hurried funeral prayers and laid him in the cold stone tomb as the afternoon waned? Can you imagine a stone-sealed tomb and the surrounding silence in the garden after the burial was finished and each departed to their homes for the evening? If you can imagine these scenes, these few details surrounding the burial of our Lord, then stay there, linger there, ponder this mystery… Enter into the silent fidelity of Mary Magdalen; enter into the sorrow of Mary, Jesus’s Mother, and John who accompanies her; enter into the compassion of Joseph of Arimathea; or enter into the futility and disappointment and sorrow of Peter and the other hiding apostles. Bring yourself into the scene with them and let yourself feel what you would feel and think what you would think in that situation. Your Jesus, who you loved and followed and believed, is dead.
Why does the Church call us to meditate on these heartbreaking events? Why should we observe a sealed tomb, a time of silent waiting, and the grieving of Jesus’s death? One major reason we memorialize these painful events is because true Christian spirituality cannot end with the self. Christian spirituality must be other-oriented, ultimately God-oriented, and must end in self-transformation and self-transcendence through love of God and love of neighbor. Spirituality that only ends in self-satisfaction and self-improvement is nothing but an egotistical exercise. Sure we may feel better about ourselves or slightly more calm after such attempts at “spirituality”, but they are ultimately fruitless, self-centered, and unfulfilling. Christian spirituality, Christian prayer– in whatever form– is primarily Christocentric. It is centered on and receptive to Christ Jesus, our Lord and friend, and through spiritual practices it aims to deepen our friendship, knowledge, and love of Him, that we may be His true friends and disciples. For it is by friendship with Jesus Christ that one matures spiritually and becomes perfected in virtues, and it is because of friendship with Jesus that we are made more like Him and thus able to love our neighbors as Christ has loved us. Prayer and spirituality for the Christian transforms one to go beyond oneself in generous love, steadfast faith, strong hope, encouragement for others, gentleness, peace-making, service, and gratitude and praise for God and neighbor. Christian spirituality– a true and lived friendship with and in Christ– fills our hearts, revives our souls, and makes us fruitful to give back to God and others with our gifts. [cf. Is. 55:10-11]
By liturgically commemorating Holy Saturday and its sorrows, the Church provides Christians a special time to deepen our friendship with Jesus and thus strengthen our Christ-centered spirituality in ways that we may not ordinarily think to do. For example, we may not often think of prayer or spirituality as being a dialogue or a relationship; to our own embarrassment, perhaps we act out our spirituality as a monologue. Perhaps we mostly think of ourselves and our needs first and continually send petitions to God without ever stopping to listen to what He may be saying in response. So often we ask God to hear us, to enter our realities, to shoulder our burdens, but do we ever pause to hear Him or to ask what He wants? The silence of Holy Saturday beckons us to pause and listen for the voice of God, to limit our chatter and hold a reverent calm throughout the day, to sit and wait patiently at the tomb of our Lord as friends, though there may be no clear signs of life.
Furthermore, in every mutual friendship, there are good times and bad, times where friends rejoice and times where they share sorrows. Jesus Christ desires true, mutual friendship with us, He desires to share His joys and His sorrows with us and His dreams and hopes for us, just as we share our joys, sorrows, dreams, and hopes with Him. Holy Saturday marks a special time when we can accompany and console Jesus in the darkest and loneliest moments of His life. As a man, Jesus knows the pain of loss, abandonment, grief, heartache, and disappointment. Have you ever comforted Him? Or sought to empathize with the indifference, misunderstanding, and rejection that He faces each day from the hardened hearts of so many people in the world? The Church invites us to deeper friendship with Jesus by faithfully abiding with Him in silent prayer. When one is depressed or sorrowing, often the most healing gift is the intentional presence and companionship of a good friend. No words need to be spoken, yet love deepens. We can and should do similarly for our Blessed Lord, who so earnestly wants our personal love and consolation. We can offer our loyalty, companionship, and reassurance as His friends, we can enter His reality. We can wait patiently with and for Him like Mary Magdalen, as she “remained sitting there, facing the tomb” (Mt. 27:61).
This year, given current circumstances and our physical distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, our observance of the Triduum looks much different. New challenges have arisen as we ourselves can no longer receive the sacraments nor gather to worship together as we usually would. We may be facing personal challenges due to isolation, unemployment, or even bereavement. However, these challenges need not be obstacles in our relationship with God, because His grace is never quarantined. These same challenges, these real losses give us a unique opportunity for significant spiritual growth. We can unite ourselves to Christ and offer Him our sufferings for our own good and the good of others. In our solitude, we can enter more deeply into meditation on the events of Jesus’s death and the sorrowful mysteries of our own life and thus open ourselves to receive God’s healing, transformative grace. Holy Saturday reminds us that it is precisely in the darkest and loneliest moments that our acts of faith, hope, and love for God and others are most meaningful, most powerful, and most fruitful. For we know that if we remain united to Him in and through death, we shall also rise with Him and live in newness of life [Rom. 6:3-11].
By prayerfully entering into the sorrowful mysteries of Holy Saturday, we cultivate the discipline of true Christian spirituality; we foster genuine friendship with Our Blessed Lord; and we open ourselves to God’s vivifying grace. We can engage these mysteries by various means, for example, by praying the liturgy of the hours; meditating on the Passion narratives of the Gospel; by setting half an hour aside for silent mental prayer; by contemplating the events of the Rosary; or by using our imagination to have a conversation with Jesus or Mary. When we unite ourselves to Christ in prayer, He sends us the Holy Spirit who fills us with even greater love and makes us courageous in serving Him. His inspiration can move our hearts to pray for and reach out to our brothers and sisters who are sorrowing or persecuted. Thus, Christian spirituality opens us to the Holy Spirit, by Whose grace we can further love God by serving our neighbors in compassionate love.
So, accept the gift of Holy Saturday and use it as a means of drawing close to God in greater faith, hope, and love. Follow the Lord into His solitude and listen to His Word; wait in steadfast hope with Mary Magdalen outside the tomb; go to Mary, your Mother, and John in their grief and share in their unshaken faith; listen to the sighs of the first disciples and join in their prayers for the world, especially for those in most need of God’s mercy, consolation, and peace. Let the losses of Holy Saturday stretch your heart and strengthen your union with God and others in authentic, life-giving love.
Maria M. Miloscia, M.A.T.M. | Campus Minister at Aquinas House