"The women who had followed Jesus, the ones who had come with him from Galilee, saw the tomb and how the body was laid. Then they went back to prepare spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested, as the commandment specified."
There is an ancient homily that can be read on Silent Saturday. “Something strange is happening,” the haunting words begin,
There is a great silence on the earth today,
a great silence and stillness.
The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep...
Please don’t misunderstand the word asleep here. By no means is this suggesting that Jesus was not really dead inside that dark, empty tomb where Joseph of Arimethea and the others laid him.
When the Roman soldiers crucified Jesus, they knew what they were doing— these were professional executioners after all. According to the gospel of John, the soldiers even plunged a spear into his side to be absolutely sure he was dead, “and blood and water came out” (19:34).
Make no mistake, John is saying that Jesus was dead. The life within him, that mysterious spark or breath of existence we call spirit or soul, was gone.
But the question is this: Where exactly did Jesus’ life go?
The scriptures, I’m afraid, do not clearly provide an answer.
On the one hand, you have Jesus saying to the bandit on the cross beside him, “I’m telling you the truth, you’ll be with me in paradise this very day” (Luke 23:43, italics added). On the other hand, you have Peter’s earliest letter claiming that, “In the spirit, too, [Jesus] went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison...” (1 Peter 3:19, italics added).
And then there’s that curious passage in the book of Acts which speaks of the Messiah “not being left in Hades,” which is a reference to something King David said in Psalm 16:10 (Acts 2:31, italics added). Finally, add to all that the early Christian conviction, as vividly expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, that, somehow, Jesus “descended into hell."
Paradise, prison, Hades, hell...
The only thing clear is that after Jesus breathes his last, entrusting his spirit to the Father, there are deep and cosmic mysteries at work in the heart of eternity itself—mysteries, mind you, that I doubt we will ever fully understand.
And that is where poetry and art, the mysterious stuff of which that ancient homily is made, are so helpful in attempting to articulate what was taking place on Silent Saturday when the body of Jesus was lying breathless in a tomb.
“God has died in the flesh,” the homily continues, “and hell trembles with fear,”
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.
Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve...
It’s an astounding image to consider, rooted in New Testament thought: for here, at long last, is the Son of Adam and Eve who is not bound, enslaved, or “mastered” by the “power of death” (Acts 2:24; Heb. 2:14), and he has journeyed to the very depths of death to set his parents free.
While we cannot be certain of all that took place on Silent Saturday (and we must hold our opinions lightly), I think we can be certain of the truth that while Jesus’ friends and followers were resting, he was making all things new.
Even though they did not know it, could not feel it, and dared not believe it, the power of death was being undone. Think about it: in the hour of their deepest discouragement, when the horrific events of Cross Friday had left them in a puddle of tears on Silent Saturday, it was then, smack dab in the middle of their searing pain, that God was already at work.
“Where can I go from your spirit?” the psalmist asks. “Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven [i.e., paradise], you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [i.e., Hades], you are there...”
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
You see, that’s the thing about Jesus: whether it’s paradise, prison, Hades, or hell, there’s just nowhere, above or below, that he won’t go to bring his lost brothers and sisters home.
And more than anything else, that’s what Silent Saturday is all about.
PONDER: What do you think was taking place on Silent Saturday?