Waiting in the Tomb: A Holy Saturday Liturgy

The most neglected day of Holy Week (arguably) is Holy Saturday. The weekend is so busy, that most churches are in the habit of holding a Good Friday service, and then jumping over Holy Saturday to land with confidence on Easter Sunday. It’s hard enough to get our congregations to come to two services in a weekend… three in a row seems insurmountable. But there are things we miss in skipping over the Sabbath between cross and stone-rolled-away. There is purpose in taking a day to reflect on a full tomb… before we proclaim it empty. We need to feel the liminal space of Holy Saturday to understand the liminal spaces in our own lives. (For more on this, here is a previous post on Holy Saturday as liminal space.) So I offer you this Holy Saturday liturgy. It could be shared with your congregation virtually on Saturday, or adjusted for the close of a Good Friday service (to lead us into the in-between space of Holy Saturday). I would suggest you read the Scripture passage aloud first, and indicate before hand that there will be some moments of silence throughout the liturgy (indicated with “pause”)–encouraging your congregation to use those moments of silence to reflect on Christ in the tomb, and to stand with those who moved through that particular Sabbath not expecting Easter morning.

Jewish graveyard on the Mt. of Olives

Luke 23: 50-56 / Psalm 27

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God.

52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. 

But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.

Leader: Today, we recognize that the tomb is full. We wait, with Joseph of Arimathea, for the kingdom of God. We stand vigil, witnesses by the tomb of Christ with the women of Galilee, and mourn that he is dead.

Wait for the Lord;

be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Leader: We wait through that long Sabbath day with Mary, and Peter, and Joseph, and all those who followed Christ—who did not expect him to lead them to a cross, who never expected him to be laid in a tomb. We sit in silence now, and think about what that long day was like for them: a day of rest—no work to distract; a day of Scripture and prayer—without Jesus to interpret and teach; a day of celebration and family—with an absence at the table. We wait through this long Sabbath with those who experienced the fullness of the tomb on that particular Sabbath day.

            Pause for a minute of silence.

Leader: We feel your death, Jesus. We feel the tomb full, and say to each other:

Wait for the Lord;

be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Leader: We wait in darkness. We acknowledge the darkness of the world around us: its wars, its hate, its hunger, its mis-ordered desires. We acknowledge the darkness within and among us: our own mis-ordered desires, our doubt, our depression, our despair.

            Pause

Leader: We feel the tomb full, and say to each other:

Wait for the Lord;

be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Leader: We wait in sadness. We acknowledge the sadness of the world around us: its sickness, its grieving, its inequality. We acknowledge the sadness within and among us: our losses, our missed opportunities, our deep grief.

Pause

Leader: We feel the tomb full, and say to each other:

Wait for the Lord;

be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Leader: We wait in fear. We acknowledge the fear of the world around us: its injustice, its instability, its distrust. We acknowledge the fear within and among us: our fear of scarcity, our fear of loss, of pain, of missing out, of being found out, our fear of death.

Pause

Leader: We feel the tomb full, and say to each other:

Wait for the Lord;

be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Leader: We wait in darkness, sadness, and fear. But we do not wait without hope.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?

Leader: When the wicked advance to devour, it is them who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege, and war break out around us, even then we will be confident.

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

In the day of trouble he will lift me out of the tomb

and set me high upon a rock.

He will keep me safe in his dwelling.

Leader: So, as we wait in the tomb together with the body of our Lord—let us acknowledge the darkness, the sadness, the fear—but let us also allow him to fill our in-between spaces with his glory.

Teach us your way, Lord;

Leader: Let him guide, and direct, and shape us even as we wait.

Lead us on a road that is straight.

Leader: Let us acknowledge Christ entombed—help us understand that he really died, that he was buried. But let us stand vigil in that tomb with confidence.

We remain confident of this:

we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Leader: Let us wait, in silence, in sorrow, in darkness, in pain… but let us wait knowing that the light is coming.

Wait for the Lord;

be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

An empty first-century tomb near Jerusalem.

Holy Saturday: Pushing into Liminal Spaces

Last year at this time I was preparing to speak to the 2019 graduating class of Columbia Bible College. Speaking to them at an “in-between” moment, the crux of a teeter-totter: on one side the predictability of grade 5, then grade 6, then grade 7… all the way up to completion of College; on the other side, overwhelming possibility.

Graduation is a liminal space.

“Liminal” is an art and literature term that describes the space between two realities—it comes from limin, which means: threshold. When you stand on a threshold (in a doorway), you have exited one room, but have not yet entered another. It’s an in-between moment. I told the class of 2019 that it was oddly appropriate that they were graduating on Holy Saturday.

It’s also, however, strangely appropriate to return to this thought on Holy Saturday 2020. I’ve been describing the feeling of this pandemic as follows: “It’s like we were all on a trampoline together, and someone threw something large and extremely heavy right in the middle, and everything—us, all our plans, all our stuff, everything—flew up in the air… and we froze there.” It feels like an in-between moment. Planning is difficult in constantly shifting circumstances, finances are imperiled, we are either far too stretched or far too bored, events are put on hold. Our 2020 graduates will graduate, but without the usual weight of ceremony and communal celebration. It’s a liminal moment.

So I’m coming back to the story of Holy Saturday—because it feels like a moment I need to push into right now. It feels like we might need to sit in the dark, to hold a vigil, to allow for grief, to acknowledge the “in-between.”

Yesterday, we mourned Jesus’ death and walked through his pain. Tomorrow, we will celebrate (in whatever way we can manage) the joy and bursting light of his resurrection. But today—today is a liminal space.

 On Holy Saturday, Jesus is entombed. When we think of Easter weekend, we usually talk about the room before and the room after: about the first day, and then… on the third day… but we rarely talk about the day in the middle: Christ’s death accomplished, his resurrection yet to come.

Other years, on this in-between day, I have found myself wondering what that particular Sabbath was like for the followers of Jesus. Luke 23:50-56 tells it this way:

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. 55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.

“But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”

Why have I never noticed that sentence before? What a radical form of obedience: to rest when it’s the last thing you want to do.

Imagine you are Mary, or one of the other women who had come with Jesus from Galilee… or perhaps you are Peter or one of the other disciples, or Joseph of Arimathea:

You have been waiting for the kingdom of God.

You have pinned your hopes for your self and your nation on one man.

You have watched him heal the blind make crippled legs strong again.

You have heard him teach, and have marveled at his wisdom, maybe trembled at the challenge of his teaching.

You have dreamed that a Messiah would rise to throw off Roman oppression—to give back to the Jewish people full rule of the land from which they had been exiled by their own sin.

And you FOUND him! You FOLLOWED him!

And now……

A tomb.

What must that long Sabbath rest of felt like?

You can’t work to take your mind off it.

You can’t even do for Jesus’ body the things that should be done.

Pause and imagine what it must have felt like.

Untitled, Claire Astra Mackenzie https://www.claireastra.com/

I imagine Jesus’ followers felt as entombed as him on that long Sabbath day.

Today, another Columbia Bible College graduating class stands on a threshold between two rooms. And we all stand on a sort of threshold together: life before this virus feels very far away; and life after it is unclear, unsettled. Everything is up in the air. We wonder when it will land—and how we will cope when it does.

Like the tomb, like that long Sabbath rest, it’s a liminal space. And it won’t be the only in-between space in our lives.

There will be waiting rooms: literal and figurative. There will be changing of seasons: literal and figurative. There will be days, weeks, months of uncertainty with decisions to be made, transitions from one place to another, from one job to another; there will be relationships lost and gained.

You will face them. As you face this moment now.

But you will not face them—or this current moment—in the same way that Mary did, or Peter, or Joseph of Arimathea. Because you know something they did not.

Holy Saturday is the threshold between the terror and pain and trauma of Good Friday, and the explosive, unexpected joy of Easter Sunday—just a step across, from one to the other. Just one day.

Poet John Donne used just one small comma to express Holy Saturday: “Death, thou shalt die.”

When you move from one city to another, you do so knowing that the Living God has gone ahead of you.

When you stand between relationships lost and gained, you do so with the promise of Jesus that he will never leave you, never forsake you.

And in those moments—like now—when there seems to be nothing you can do but wait… you do so knowing that you serve a God who waits with you. A God who knows what it means to be entombed. A God who has been to the in-between spaces.

Untitled, by Claire Astra Mckenzie https://www.claireastra.com/

Just last week, one of my favourite artists (who I also have the privilege to name as a friend—and who gave me permission to include some of her work here), Claire Astra Mackenzie, posted some new work on her facebook page: Claire Astra Studios. Working in India Ink and Gold Leaf—she described her new work as “Unfocused. Frenetic. Still believing there is beauty. Taking a moment to breathe.” Allowing the darkness of India Ink to bleed on the page, she picked out some of the liminal spaces with gold—it’s the work you’ve been looking at as you’ve read this blog post. I find it incredibly hopeful! To me, these seem like Holy Saturday paintings: the darkness is still there. There’s stillness, there’s messiness, there’s a sense of waiting, even grief—but the light is there. Glimmering in the liminal space.

My childhood piano teacher, Mrs. Johnson, always told me to pay attention to the space between the notes. The rests—the liminal space between the notes—are really what create the music and give it shape. The silence is just as important as the sound.

In the light of the resurrection, we can begin to see our liminal spaces—even this moment now—as a location for transformation.

Because God is not in the habit of wasting things.

He did not waste Jonah’s time in the whale—but used it to convince Jonah to preach to a bloodthirsty people and turn them toward repentance. He changed the Ninevites, but he also changed Jonah… even if it took awhile.

God did not waste the Israelite wanderings in the desert, but used their wandering to cause them to follow him more closely.

God did not waste Peter’s denial, but used it to make the foundation of his church stronger.

God did not waste Job’s trials, or Gideon’s doubt, or Elijah’s breakdown, or Barnabas and Paul’s argument over John Mark.

He has not wasted my liminal spaces; and there have been many. He used those in-between, difficult times to sharpen skills, to narrow desires, to increase empathy, to build something stronger in me.

He will not waste this liminal space right now. Or any of the liminal spaces you encounter over the course of your life.

            He will not waste your waiting.

            He will not waste your isolation.

            He will not waste your grieving.

            He will not waste your doubt.

            He will not waste you.

Untitled, Claire Astra Mckenzie https://www.claireastra.com/

So right now—on this Holy Saturday—in this liminal space… get ready to sing. Sing from the tomb. Sing from the in-between. Sing the gold-leaf from between the branches. Sing suspended in mid-air as you wait to find out where everything will land… Sing like you mean it:

“Ain’t no grave that can hold this body down.”