The Great and Holy Sabbath
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.Genesis 2.1-3
Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.Genesis 3.17b-19
I was not raised religious, so when I became a Christian in my mid-twenties I was not familiar with very many of the traditional interpretations of scriptural passages and religious practices. An example that comes to mind today is the saying of Our Lord, which can be found in all four Gospels, that "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." When I first heard this text proclaimed I'm pretty sure I thought that it meant that God gave us the Sabbath day as a day of rest, that it was "ours" in that sense. But of course that sense doesn't make any sense of the context in which Our Lord said that the Sabbath was made for us, because, of course, he and his disciples weren't resting when they were accused of violating the Sabbath, they were picking grains of wheat as they walked along. Perhaps someone raised in the Church would have known what I only figured out over time, that the text refers to God's mercy. Our labors are a result of our Fall, and God gave us a day on which we must not labor, so that in our resting state we may stand as a sign to all the world that our Fall is not irreversible, thanks to God's great mercy.
Today is the Sabbath day par excellence, since it is the central point of the sacred Triduum in which God poured himself out for us on the Cross and rose again from the dead. The old creation, with all its labors and passions, passed away on Good Friday, and our state of condemnation with it, and on the Sunday of the Resurrection a new creation, a re-creation of our primordial state, takes its place. Between the two is a day of rest, commemorating the great mercy and love that is the bridge between the old creation and the new. In the Office of Readings for today we read the traditional account of Christ's descent into Hell on this day, to bring the Good News of the new creation to Adam, Eve, and all the rest who passed from the old creation before the coming of the kingdom. This story is a very old one; more recently Holy Saturday has been portrayed as a "waiting day", the so-called "Vigil" day, or "Easter Even", in which creation sits expectantly at the tomb awaiting the coming forth of her Lord in glory. Both of these things, the old tradition and the new interpretation, reflect, in my view, an attempt to "do something" with Holy Saturday. It's so obvious, after all, what the Friday of Our Lord's Passion and the Sunday of his Resurrection are all about, but what are we to do with that day in between?
Coming to Christianity as a convert who is all too keenly aware of his need for mercy, I look on Holy Saturday somewhat differently. The Passion is done, the Price has been paid, so there is no "waiting" involved in this "Easter Even". The Resurrection is coming, but before it does I am bidden by the Commandment to bask for a time in God's great mercy, before I turn to the joyous celebration of the start of a new creation. Have you ever taken a great deal of trouble to wrap a Christmas or birthday gift for someone whom you love deeply? Maybe you selected special paper, perhaps you took some time to make a bow and to curl some ribbon, maybe you worked hard to get those corners folded over just right. Whenever I get a gift like that, a gift that was obviously hand wrapped with such great care, I make it a point to take in the labor of love that is the wrapping before I start ripping into it. Indeed, such gifts I do not "rip into", but instead I usually undo the wrapping very carefully, and sometimes I save it. To this day, 20 years later, I still have the wrapping in which the woman who was to become my wife gave me the first gift she ever gave me, which turned out to be a very nice Rosary. God's infinite mercy and love is the finest of papers in which our gift of redemption has been wrapped, and once one realizes that, one no longer takes the Sabbath for granted as a mere "day of rest". We rest not so that we may begin laboring again the next day, but so that we may breath deeply of God's mercy, take it in, enjoy the wrapping and exult in the great work of love that God has accomplished for us, because He loves us.
He loves us. Don't rip into that paper and toss it aside, but drink it in with your soul and savor it. Most weekends Christians are content to regard Sunday itself as the "Sabbath day", because it is the "Lord's Day". But this weekend is different: this weekend the Sabbath day and the Lord's day are two different days, and we have a chance to experience God's entire Sacramental message to us in a way that it is very difficult to capture on other days. Spend this Great and Holy Sabbath basking in God's mercy, so that tonight, when you celebrate your recreation, you will have that sense of loving gratitude and Eucharistic joy that will draw you closer to God.