March 31, 2018
+ This morning of course is a liturgically bare and solemn morning. We gather today in a church stripped to its barest bones. The Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is gone—the aumbry’s door lies open, the sanctuary light is extinguished and is gone. The crosses are veiled in black shrouds of mourning.
It is a bleak and colorless place.
It is a time of mourning.
It is a time of loss.
This liturgy purposely, intentionally, has the feel of a burial service. And liturgically we ponder the fact that Jesus’ murdered and tortured body this morning lies in a tomb.
Despite all this, as I have said many time over the years, I truly do love to participate in the liturgy this morning. I love to preach about Holy Saturday. I love to talk about it. I love to mediate on it throughout the year. And I guess I do because it’s kind of an ignored day.
For the most part, Holy Saturday is not given a lot of attention by a majority of churches, at least here in the U.S. In places like Mexico, it is a big day. Holy Saturday in Mexico is also called Judas Day and it is on this day they burn effigies of Judas Iscariot. It is called Judas day because it is popularly believed that Judas committed suicide early on this day.
Now, Judas has become one of the most maligned and hated figures in human history. His act of betrayal is seen as the ultimate form of treason and cowardice. And of course, the tradition has always been that Judas, after he went out and hung himself, went to hell. The end of the story.
There have been a few traditions about what happened to his body. One says that he was the first one buried in the Potter’s Field that was used by the money he returned to the Priests. It is also said, to this day, that anybody buried in that Potter’s Field decomposes within twenty-four hours.
So, like that, Judas—the symbol of deceit—disappears completely, without a trace. It’s a sad end to a sad man. But there is a little glimmer of hope in all of this.
Today, on this Holy Saturday, we also think about a popular tradition in the Church that you know I really love.You know I love it, because I peach about it regularly.
The Harrowing of Hell, of course, is the event in which we imagine Jesus, on this Holy Saturday, descending among the dead in hell and bringing them back. Most years on Holy Saturday I preach about the Harrowing of Hell and reference the famous icon of Jesus standing over the broken-open tombs pulling out Adam from one tomb and Eve from the other. I always place that icon on the votive candle stand in the Narthex.
But there is another image I would like to draw your attention to—a more interactive image. That image is, of course, the image of the labyrinth. One of the many images used in walking the labyrinth is, of course, the Harrowing of Hell. When you think of the labyrinth, you can almost imagine Jesus trekking his way down to the very bowels of hell. There, he takes those waiting for him and gently and lovingly leads them back through the winding path to heaven.
On this Holy Saturday, I also like imagine that one person Jesus greets and leads back is, of course, the new-arrived Judas. Judas was, after all, one of the closest of the apostles. And Jesus knew from the beginning what Judas was going to do.
In a sense, Jesus needed Judas to fulfill his destiny on that cross. I can imagine, then, that Jesus, upon reaching the bowels of hell on this day, sought Judas out especially, embraced him and quietly led him out, along with the others. It’s lovely to imagine and, whether it’s true or not, I like to cling to that image.
I do, because, I will confess, of all the apostles, I sometimes identify with Judas. I think we all do at times.
The image of the Harrowing of Hell—the image of the labyrinth—never becomes
I, like Judas, am filled with a steadily-growing joy as the light grows larger and bolder and I realize that within that light is Jesus. I, like Judas, am overwhelmed in that moment when God in Jesus comes to me in my desolation and my isolation and reaches out to me to embrace me and lead me away from that prison that I have made for myself by my foolish actions and cold-hearted ways.
See, God is so powerful that even the depths of Hell are not out of God’s reach. Even there, God can come. Even there, God’s Light can permeate. Even there, God can break open the walls of the prison of hell and can let that freeing Light shine. This is what Holy Saturday is all about.
Even dead and lying in a tomb, Jesus still manages to make a difference—to do good. Even when it seems like the ultimate defeat has occurred, the ultimate victory is going on, right under the surface.
Holy Saturday is that glimmer of light in the darkest places of our souls. And that light that is about to dawn on us tomorrow morning—that light of ultimate and unending joy and gladness—is more glorious than anything we can even begin to fathom in this moment.
So let us this morning, strain into the dark. Let us look with hope and joy toward that light that is approaching us. And when we see him, there, in that light, coming toward us with his arms outstretched, let us run to him with that Easter joy.