Most people don’t know what to do with Holy Saturday, that is, if they care a bit about Good Friday and Easter in the first place. For even practicing Christians Saturday is often a day to cart kids off to roll Easter eggs in the park or run last errands to prepare for the Easter lunch. What is Saturday about, anyway?
In the Christian mythos, Holy Week is a story of passage; Jesus crosses a threshold of suffering and death and that catapults him into the liminal space of the tomb and on to a transformed future. The Saturday of the story, however, is the still point, the quiet mystery. On the heels of death we know what tombs are for. But do we view a tomb differently if it not only follows an event but also precedes something?
Of course, Christians were not the first to tap into stories of transformation. Jonah was swallowed by the big fish and carried in its belly for for three days before being unceremoniously regurgitated onto the shore of the future. Transformation is messy. And Christians borrowed from Jonah’s story to provide an analogous explanation for what happened to Jesus. And more than one carved the story on the outside of their sarcophagus. It was typological art: fish = tomb.
And speaking of belly, it may not be accidental that tomb and womb rhyme. In the same way that a seedling germinates in the darkness of the earth before springing to life, so the tomb of death serves as the womb of life.
In certain African rites of passage for young people transitioning into adulthood, in addition to tests and fasting and ritual, the initiates crawl through a passage, a tunnel dug in the mud. When the contractions of that birth canal squeezes them out the other side it as adults that they rise.
The neolithic passage tombs in Ireland function in the same way. In a reoccurring annual ritual the communicant crawled into the mound through tight passageways to the inner chamber. I can tell you that they are tight, not ideal for anyone claustrophobic. Once a year, at the Spring Equinox, the light of the sun rises, travels down the shaft at just the right angle and illuminates the darkness of the center. There is light. New birth.
During my stay in Israel on a summer archaeological dig at Caesarea Maritima, I went with staff to visit a Mithros cultic tomb. At the very same time that Paul the apostle was launching on his missionary journeys from the harbor of Caesarea, select Roman officers were inducted into a secret mystery cult. When we were let down into the tomb, the same tomb in which those Roman officers were initiated twenty centuries ago, we sat on stone benches and our eyes beheld the artistic representation of Mithros the bull painted on the walls in terracotta. The myth of Mithros featured great sacrifice, honor and transformation. After the officers entered the tomb the small opening was covered over with a large stone and they were “left for dead.” At the prescribed time, the stone was removed and so were the officers, ostensibly transformed into their new state of being.
After the faithful witness of Jesus of Nazareth compelled him into the jaws of the Roman killing machine, he was placed in a borrowed space that had been carved into the rock – his fish, his womb, his crucible, his birth canal, his passage tomb.
Holy Saturday is the most unobserved, neglected, underestimated day of the grand, liminal, transformational story of Jesus. The most important and holy things happen in the seams, margins, and pauses and where the past is reassembled for a beckoning future. Don’t underestimate that quiet place. It is the place on the other side of tragedy, loss, threat, necessary shifts, and consequences created by hard choices.
Because life is very much a chain of liminal moments, what we do with them when they come determines much about the destiny of the entire chain itself. What happens on Holy Saturday determines whether the tomb may also become our womb, the place of birth-giving.