In Protestant American churches, and particularly in evangelical ones, Easter, along with Christmas, is the highlight of the church year. Pastors exhort their congregations to invite their neighbors, the worship leader may prepare some special music, and families will gather together afterward to eat some/a lot of New Covenant ham. In between these two poles of celebrating Christ’s birth and resurrection, though, many evangelical congregations have lost a sense of the rest of the Christian calendar. Even when a pastor mentions Holy Week, the most an evangelical church might do is have a Good Friday service.
One day in particular that suffers from this apathy towards the traditional church calendar among evangelicals is Holy Saturday. While Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some mainline Protestants still practice the Holy Saturday evening liturgy, both the practice and theological impact of the Great Sabbath have been lost in many evangelical churches. So what does Holy Saturday mean? Why is it important not only that Christ “died, and was buried,” but also that “he descended to the dead”?
First, when I affirm that Christ descended to the dead, what I mean – and what I think the Bible teaches – is that Jesus experienced the fullness of death as the incarnate Son. In other words, his human body went down to the grave, his human soul went to the place of the dead (and more particularly, the place of the righteous dead, Paradise), and both of these occurred while his human nature was all the while hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son. So the God-man experiences death – not just in a moment, but the state of death, remaining dead for three days. I think, then, we can point to at least three aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb that are good news – part of the gospel.
- Holy Saturday is Jesus’ Sabbath rest. Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and, as the Triune God rests after the work of creation is finished, so Jesus rests after his work of new creation is finished. Saturday is the seventh day, the day of rest, and Jesus is resting after completing his work of redemption. Of course, we’re still waiting on the resurrection – without Easter Sunday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mean nothing. But Jesus’ mission is effectively completed when he gives up his spirit at the crucifixion.
- Holy Saturday is when Jesus experiences death for us. The Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation,” and his time in the tomb is part of what he does for us. As the God-man, Jesus experiences death. He has not just died for a moment and then received life again, nor did he revive after being placed in the tomb and then just chill until Sunday morning. Jesus remained dead. I think this is particularly comforting for those facing death, or who have loved ones facing death – Jesus has experienced this with us and for us. We have nothing to fear because Christ our Brother has faced and experienced the same death we all face.
- Holy Saturday is Jesus’ victory over death. Again, we’re still waiting on the consummation of Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but in a very real sense the fact that Jesus remains dead for three days is in itself defeating death. He doesn’t just experience death for us; by experiencing it as the God-man, he also defeats it for us. Death therefore has no sting or victory anymore (1 Cor. 15:55). In the early church, Holy Saturday was when Jesus declared his victory to all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, since he was in the place of the dead with them. So we can say on Saturday Jesus’ announced victory and on Sunday he demonstrated it.