Last Sunday we remembered the Last day of Jesus’ life – Friday. We remembered that “It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him….And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” We remembered that “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.” We remembered that “when evening had come, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.” We remembered that the women were present for all of this.
Jesus is dead. Today we remember Saturday of The Last Week. Pretty much all of us, except perhaps the youngest, can imagine how the disciples felt. The day after our loved one dies is a cold and empty day. For those whom we were blessed to have journeyed their last weeks and days of life, we felt emotionally exhausted. We had been preparing for their death for some time and yet we feel little or no relief. For those whom we have lost suddenly, unexpectedly – we felt numb, we were in shock. No matter the circumstances, when we have lost someone we loved, we also felt we lost part of ourselves. We may have felt tired but could not sleep, hungry but could not eat. We were surprised to see the sun rise and to hear birds chirp. We could not believe that people continued to live their normal lives as if nothing happened – even smiling and laughing. For us the colors were no longer bright, tastes and smells were dull. Our bodies felt heavy and slow. We can imagine how the disciples must have felt on Saturday.
But even though we can relate to the disciples 2,000 years in the past and can relate to each other through our grief and mourning, we live in a culture that does not support the death process well. Our culture is not very good at death. We try with everything in our power to prolong life and to trick death. We try to keep looking young, to convince ourselves and others that we are very far from death’s door. Once we die, our bodies are filled with chemicals and dressed us up pretty, they apply make-up and then we look as if we are only sleeping. When someone dies, there is a time limit to how long we are allowed to grieve. People generally do not want to hear about death and the pain it leaves with us because then they have to face their mortality. Some Asian cultures have funeral rituals for 49 days. Orthodox Christians in Russia have services to honor the deceased person 3, 9 and 40 days after they pass. In Mexico families go to be with the spirits of their deceased loves ones once a year. Jews have rules about what mourners should do and should not do for the time of mourning called Shiva. The rules provide space for people to just grieve and gives the community specific ways they are to provide care for those who are mourning. But the disciples were not technically family and their support had to come from each other.
On Saturday, Jesus was dead, his body was in the tomb. The women reported to the disciples how Jesus’s death came. How it came pretty fast for a crucifixion, some people hang on the cross for days. Jesus was dead in six hours. They told the men how Jesus cried words from Psalm 22 just before he breathed his last, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” They told the men how Joseph of Arimathea was so bold and brave in asking Pilate for Jesus’ body and how he was so kind to wrap it in a linen cloth and put it in a tomb.
Jesus was dead but most of the world continued as if nothing had changed. The day between the crucifixion and the resurrection does not get much attention today either, most of us move straight into celebrating the Resurrection. Some churches do keep a prayer vigil going from 6 PM Friday until Midnight Sunday morning. Some Christians fast during that time, going without food or water. Catholics do not have mass on Holy Saturday and do not allow marriages or baptisms as the day is to be respected with quiet reverence and prayer. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters do have services on Saturday. It is a dark service. They have Jesus’ coffin in the middle of the sanctuary. They carry it in a procession around the church chanting and praying. Each person kisses Jesus dead body. They sing, pray, and recite the 119th Psalm and leave in sadness.
For the Scripture in the bulletin it says, “None.” That is because the gospel of Mark does not say one word about what happened on Saturday and the other Gospels are not much better. Matthew tells us that after Jesus died, “the tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised,” but he does not tell us exactly when that happened. Maybe it happened on Saturday.
I Peter 3.18-19 says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.
There is also a writing called The Gospel of Peter for which only a fragment still exists and which is believed to have been written more than 100 years after Jesus. But it has this very interesting account of what happened on Saturday: Soldiers, two by two were keeping guard, and there rang out a loud voice in heaven and they saw the heavens opened and two men come down from there in a great brightness and draw to the tomb…the stone rolled away by itself and the young men entered… they then saw three men come out and two of them sustaining the other and a cross following them. The heads of the two reaching to heaven and the hand of heaven leading the third…they heard a voice ask, “Have you proclaimed liberty to them that sleep” and the cross answered, “yes.”
It is from these accounts that the Apostle’s Creed included the line, “Jesus descended into hell.” But what does that mean? Jesus went to hell on Saturday?
To begin to understand what is meant by this idea we have to first know that our understanding of hell, our definition and image is different from the early Christians who were all Jewish. Some translations of the Apostles Creed say “Jesus descended to the dead,” instead of “hell” which is probably more accurate. Jesus went to Sheol, a place of nonexistence – not a place of fire and torture. In the book Proof of Heaven, a neuroscientist named Eben Alexander reports his near death experience. But before he experiences heaven he goes to an underworld which he described as “darkness, but a visible darkness – like being submerged in mud yet also being able to see through it. Or maybe dirty Jell-O describes it better. Transparent, but in a bleary, blur, claustrophobic, suffocating kind of way. Consciousness, but without memory or identity—like a dream where you know what’s going on around you, but you have no real idea of who, or what, you are.” I imagine Sheol as something like this.
This is what most Catholics and Orthdox believe, that on Saturday Jesus descended to the dead. He went to Sheol to liberate all the righteous people who had lived for justice and died from injustice. He went to the underworld to spread the Gospel to those who had already died. This understanding of what happened on Saturday is very old and is the best known.
But there is another idea of what happened on Saturday that was first explained by Gregory of Nysaa, a bishop who lived in the mid-300’s. He reflected that on Saturday “the only begotten God truly rested from all his works, keeping Sabbath in the flesh by means of his death.” The Sabbath for Jews begins at sundown on Friday and goes until sundown on Saturday, modeled on the first creation account in Genesis, “there was evening and there was morning” is how each day is described. And on the 7th day – God rested from all God’s work and God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.”
In most of the Gospels, Joseph quickly got Jesus’ body into the tomb, not taking time to prepare the body with spices, he was working against the sun, the Sabbath was about to start. That is why the women came to the tomb early Sunday with spices to do what there had not been time to do when his body was there. They could not come to do this work until the Sabbath was over. Gregory of Nyssa believed that Jesus kept the Sabbath along with the disciples and God on that Saturday.
But on Saturday, the disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus were not wondering if Jesus was keeping Sabbath or descending to the dead. These are only things that have been considered after the Resurrection. The disciples were wondering what is the point to life if someone so good, so full of compassion, kindness and love ends up being executed. They must have felt that God had abandoned Jesus and had abandoned them.
Job may have best described their feelings in his conversation with God as he sat in an ash heap with pain in his body and in his heart after losing his entire family.
‘A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last.
Do you fix your eyes on such a one?
Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you,
and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist,…
‘For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant.
But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they?
As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up,
so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.
O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait
until my release should come.