Why Holy Saturday Isn’t a Day of Sorrow

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By Brian Niemiec

One of my earliest memories of Holy Saturday was asking my father why Grandpop only ate bread and water on the Saturday before Easter.  I don’t even remember my dad’s response, but every year my Grandpop would eat only a little bread and water as he waited for Easter morning.  I used to think that his practice was a continuation of the fasting and repentance that the Church practices on Good Friday.  Yet this simple meal for a humble and loving man speaks less to fasting, and more to the true nature of Holy Saturday.

Each Gospel account to a greater or lesser extent portrays the Apostles in a less than flattering light. Throughout the ministry of Jesus we come to understand that at many times these twelve men were not the sharpest knives on the first century Palestine cutting block.  A particularly challenging concept for them was the Resurrection.  Jesus told them that the Son of God must be killed, and on the third day he will rise. He tried parables. He tried stories. He tried allegory. He tried the direct approach, and yet the Apostles were at a loss. 

Due to their lack of comprehension (and faith?), the Apostles fled in fear during and after the crucifixion. Even Peter, the rock of the future Church, denies Jesus and lurks in the shadows; not daring to get too close.  The first Holy Saturday was not a happy occasion. The followers of Jesus hid behind a locked door, and worried if they too would be sentenced to death.  It was only after Jesus’ resurrection, when he appeared in the midst of the disciples, did the true joy and meaning of the last few days make sense.  

Unlike the Apostles, we know what happens on Easter Sunday. We have read about the empty tomb, and the realization of the promise of everlasting life.  What, then, is the point of Holy Saturday? Well, think about moments of great love in your life: reuniting with your family after a long time away, the birth of a son or daughter, or the day of your wedding.  What were you feeling in the time immediately before those incredibly happy moments? There was probably a little fear, but I would hope there was also expectation, excitement, and some butterflies.  

In a similar way, Holy Saturday is a time of expectation. This day, with the tomb full, is the great pause before the magnificent feast of Easter.  Easter day we celebrate the promise of the eternal banquet made possible for us through Jesus Christ, and at that time we will be made perfect. We will be fully ourselves, and perfectly one with God.  If on Easter Sunday we celebrate this great promise, than Holy Saturday is the day of preparation and expectation. Holy Saturday isn’t sorrowful, it is incredibly hopeful.

Thinking back on my grandfather, I’d like to think that he already knew this.  As any good Polish Catholic family would, Saturday morning he and my grandmother took the Easter food to the church to be blessed, and spent the rest of the day cleaning and preparing for the celebration to come. I think that Grandpop only ate bread and water because he was waiting for and expecting Easter Sunday and the banquet to come.  He waited in hope for the joy of the empty tomb.  As Christians, this is our continuous task, to prepare and wait in hope for the time when God is all in all.  

I wish you all a very prayerful and expectant Holy Saturday, and a blessedly joyous Easter Sunday!

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10 thoughts on “Why Holy Saturday Isn’t a Day of Sorrow”

  1. I don’t mean to reduce your beautiful reflection to a banal–if also interesting–point, but I think it is fascinating how as Christians who know the whole story, we can over and over again ritualistically reenact (or maybe recapitulate?) the story, knowing full well the outcome, but still be driven emotionally by the highs and lows of each stage of the story. We are somehow wired (perhaps divinely? providentially?) to engage each step along the way, though we may know full well the end result. The same can be said for every person who has ever seen a movie or a play or heard a symphony or tasted a food for the second or any other number of repeated times. You know (or have a really good idea) of what will be, but the engagement of each stage in the unfolding of the narrative/story/movement/piece/song enraptures (or at least is capable of enrapturing) us so much so that we encounter it as if we //did not know// the outcome or end result. There is something sociological or anthropological going on there that I am articulating poorly (and neither have the knowledge to really understand/explain), but I am grateful we have that ability, because otherwise stories, poems, music, and religion would be really quite boring.

  2. I never really know how to deal with Holy Saturday, it is largely a day of patient waiting. It seems to be somewhat undefined as not being the fasting of Good Friday or the festive celebration of Easter. Much of the old world traditions have been lost both with Vatican 2, and with the new world secularism that is so promoted. That blessing of the Easter food is the one tradition that has survived. I often wonder what other old world, pre Vatican 2 ethnic Christian traditions have been lost to modern society.

  3. I never really know how to deal with Holy Saturday, it is largely a day of patient waiting. It seems to be somewhat undefined as not being the fasting of Good Friday or the festive celebration of Easter. Much of the old world traditions have been lost both with Vatican 2, and with the new world secularism that is so promoted. That blessing of the Easter food is the one tradition that has survived. I often wonder what other old world, pre Vatican 2 ethnic Christian traditions have been lost to modern society.

  4. Thanks for the compelling picture of your grandfather, Brian. And the part about ” As Christians, this is our continuous task, to prepare and wait in hope for the time when God is all in all.” Well done!

    I have come to experience things like the empty tabernacle and stripped altar after Holy Thursday service, the setting of the Sacrament away from the church, the solemn recessional from Good Friday, and the rather empty church (except for liturgical environment folks) to be a kind of ritualization of the absence of God in the world. It’s at least a nod to that part of people’s lives today, as I see it anyway.

    And, regarding your comment, Patrick. it would make sense for me (hopefully) to be more in touch with my story of presence and absence that hearing the vigil of readings tonight could have a different impact.

    Happy Vigil & Easter celebrations to you! –roc,sj

  5. Thanks for your comments Pat and Roc! Pat, I absolutely agree. Anamnesis, the theological word that means remembering in a way that makes real and present that which we are remembering, is a huge part of our Christian life; particularly in liturgy.

    Roc, thanks for your insites on my last few posts. It is great to have the perspective of someone with your experience. Thanks for all you continue to do for the church (Boston College exposed me to the St. Louis Jesuits music for the first time a few years ago)!

    Happy Easter to you both!

  6. Reblogged this on submarelime's Blog (MaryAnn Vasquez) and commented:
    Oh My God, I remember my Grandmother used to make us kneel on hard wood floors (in her living room) and pray for hours and hours…I think it was a Rosary for Christ Our Lord and anyone else who might’ve passed on that she knew about. I was about 5 years old or so. Thank you for the memories…

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