6. THIS IS THE BLESSED SABBATH
The “Great and Holy Sabbath” is the day which connects Great Friday, the commemoration of the Cross with the day of His Resurrection. To many the real nature and the meaning of this “connection,” the very necessity of this “middle day” remains obscure. For a good majority of Church goers, the “important” days of Holy Week are Friday and Sunday, the Cross and the Resurrection. The Church proclaims that Christ has “trampled death by death.” It means even before the Resurrection , an event takes place, in which the sorrow is not simply replaced by joy, but is itself transformed into joy. Great Saturday is precisely this day of transformation, the day when victory grows from inside defeat, when before the Resurrection; we are given to contemplate the death of death itself.
The death of Christ is the ultimate proof of His love for the will of God, of His obedience to His Father. It is an act of pure obedience, of full trust in the Father’s will; and for the Church it is precisely this obedience to the end, this perfect humility of the Son that constitutes the foundation, the beginning of His victory. The Father desires the this death, the Son accepts it, revealing an unconditional faith in the perfection of the Father’s will.
But why does the Father desire this death? Why is it necessary? He desires the salvation of man, i.e. that the destruction of death shall not be an act of His power, (“Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and He shall presently “give me more than twelve legions of angels?” Matthew 26:53), not a violence, be it even a saving one, but an act of that love, freedom and free dedication to God, for which He created man. For any other salvation would have been in opposition to the nature of man, and therefore not a real salvation. It was essential that death were not only destroyed by God, but overcome and trampled down in human nature itself, by man and through man. “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” (I Corinthians 15:21).
For death is, above all, a lack of life, a destruction of life that has cut itself from its only source. And because Christ’s death is a movement of love towards God, an act of obedience and trust, of faith and perfection— it is an act of life (Father! Into Thy hands I commend my spirit” LUKE 23:46) which destroys death itself.
Such is the meaning of Christ’s descent into Hades of His death becoming His victory. And the light of this victory now illumines our vigil before the Grave.
“O Life, how liest Thou dead? How dwellest Thou in a tomb. Albeit Thou didst unbind the power of death and raised the dead from Hades, O Christ the Life, Thou hast been placed in a Tomb. By Thy death Thou hast abolished death, bringing forth life to the world. O what joy! O what abounding delight, wherewith Thou didst fill those who are in Hades, when Thou didst rise as a light in its dark abyss...”
Life enters the Kingdom of death. The Divine Light shines in its terrible darkness. It shines to all who are there, because Christ is the life of all, the only source of life. Therefore He also dies for all, for whatever happens to His life— happens in Life itself. This descent into Hades is the encounter of the Life of all with the death of all:
“Thou hast come down to earth to save Adam, and having not found him on earth, Thou hast descended, searching him, even into Hades...”
Sorrow and joy are fighting each other and now joy is about to win. The duel between Life and Death comes to its end. And, for the first time, the song of victory and triumph resounds:
“The company of the Angels was amazed, when they beheld thee numbered among the dead, yet, Thyself, O Savior, destroying the power of death, and with Thee raising up Adam and releasing all men from hell...” “Wherefore, O Woman disciples, do ye mingle sweet-smelling spices with your tears of pity? The radiant Angel within the sepulcher cried unto the Myrrh-bearing women: Behold the grave, and understand; for the Savior is from the tomb...”
Sabbath, the seventh day, achieves and completes the history of salvation, its last act being the over-coming of death. But after the Sabbath comes the first day of a new creation, of a new life born from the grave.
At the very end of Matins, the ultimate meaning of the “middle day” is made manifest. Christ arose again from the dead, His resurrection we will celebrate. However, this celebration commemorates a unique event of the past, and anticipates a mystery of the future. It is already His Resurrection, but not yet ours. We will have to die, to accept the dying, the separation, the destruction. Our reality is in this world, in this “age,” is the reality of Great and Holy Saturday; this day is the real image of our human condition.
But this life between the Resurrection of Christ and the day of the common resurrection, is not precisely the life in the Great Saturday? Is not expectation the basic and essential category of Christian experience? We wait in love, hope and faith. And this waiting for “the resurrection and the life of the world to come,” this life which is “hidden with Christ in God” (COLOSSIANS 3:3-4), this growth of expectation in love, in certitude; all this is our own “Great Saturday.” Little by little everything in this world becomes transparent to the light that comes from there, the “image of this world” passeth by and this indestructible life with Christ becomes our supreme and ultimate value.
Every year, on Great and Holy Saturday, after this morning service, we wait for the fullness of Paschal joy. We know that they are approaching— and yet, how slow is this approach, how long is this day! But is not the wonderful quiet of Great Saturday the symbol of our very life in this world? Are we not always in this “middle day,” waiting for the Pascha of Christ, preparing ourselves for the day without evening of His Kingdom?