The Silence of God

Holy Saturday
Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315

Holy Saturday is perhaps the most mysterious day in the liturgical calendar. On this day, God is silent; He is in the tomb. The Church is silent as well; no liturgies are celebrated for the day. From the end of the Good Friday liturgy to the beginning of the Easter Vigil, the Church contemplates the mystery: Our Lord is dead and buried. The greatest evil ever committed just occurred – the murder of the God-man – and yet it appears that God does nothing in response.

Aren’t we now, in our time, living a long Holy Saturday? Within the Church, we have Church leaders who embrace, or at least wink at, heresy and immoral practices. We have parishes that practice what can only be considered a fundamentally different religion than Catholicism. Outside the Church, we have the growing threat of militant Islam. We have no political candidates in this election year who want Christ the King to reign in our society. We have a popular culture which has become a cesspool of immorality and insanity. Where is God in all this? Why is He silent? We repeat the cry of the prophets, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear?” (Habakkuk 1:2).

Living Holy Saturday

Over the centuries the Church has produced a rich iconography for Holy Saturday. By meditating upon this iconography we can come to a deeper understanding of this enigmatic day, which may lead us to a better grasp of what it means to live out the long Holy Saturday of our time. Christ has descended into hell. He is lifting Adam and Eve from the pits while the righteous of the Old Testament – King David, John the Baptist, and others – look on and rejoice. So while God is silent on the earth and it appears that He has allowed evil to reign, in actuality, underneath the surface (literally!) He is busy demonstrating the very depths of His love; Christ will go anywhere men are in need of redemption. He raises up our first parents, lifting them out of the pits of sin and death. Of course, Christ does not stop there; he does not stay in the grave. Instead he rises triumphantly on Easter Sunday, defeating death by death and overcoming sin through sinlessness.

When it appears that God is silent, we must remember the lesson of Holy Saturday. Christ was not lifeless in the tomb; He was actively working out the salvation of mankind. Likewise today, even when we are surrounded by the apparent silence of God, we can be assured that He is working in the world. His work, however, is often accomplished beneath the surface, hidden from the world. The orthodox priest who has been banished to a far-off parish but celebrates the Mass reverently and administers the sacraments faithfully – he is raising souls out of the pits of hell and into the arms of Our Savior. The stay-at-home mother of six who feels completely worn out but continues to press on for the sake of her kids – she is leading them away from the devil and laying a foundation for a faithful life of Christian discipleship. The father who works in a dreary job to support his family, resisting the temptations of the world and the feminization of the culture – he is dying to self in order that his family might be saved.

For each of these individuals, God is often silent. They hear no “well done, good and faithful servant.” God does not seem to respond to their cries for help against the ravaging tide of the world. Does He not care? Does He not hear us? Just as it did for the disciples on Holy Saturday, all appears to be lost. All the dreams of a Messianic kingdom in which the pagan rulers would be swept away are themselves swept away. Instead the disciples see only failure: a criminal executed by the state. Yet we know the rest of the story. Christ triumphs over death and the Word speaks in His most powerful voice on Easter Sunday: I am the conqueror of sin and death, I am not silent. No matter what you go through, no matter how bad all seems to be, I will rescue those faithful to me and bring them into the everlasting kingdom prepared for me from the foundation of the world. My silence on Holy Saturday is but a pause before the final act of your salvation.

Arise, Let Us Go Hence

Yes, today God seems silent. But He is working today as He did on Holy Saturday, in the depths of the earth, lifting people out of misery and death and preparing for the great Easter where He will make all things new. In an ancient homily on Holy Saturday, we see that on this day, and on every day, God is not silent, but is preparing a place for each of us:

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.

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