On Great and Holy Saturday the Orthodox Church commemorates the burial of Christ and His descent into Hades. It is the day between the Crucifixion of our Lord and His glorious Resurrection. The Matins of Holy Saturday is conducted on Friday evening, and while many elements of the service represent mourning at the death and burial of Christ, the service itself is one of watchful expectation.
Commemoration Of Holy Saturday
Photo courtesy of John Thomas and used with permission. Experience more of Holy Week in pictures through John Thomas' book "Sacred Light: Following the Paschal Journey"
On Great and Holy Saturday the Church contemplates the mystery of the Lord's descent into Hades, the place of the dead. Death, our ultimate enemy, is defeated from within. "He (Christ) gave Himself as a ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the Cross ... He loosed the bonds of death" (Liturgy of St. Basil).
On Great Saturday our focus is on the Tomb of Christ. This is no ordinary grave. It is not a place of corruption, decay and defeat. It is life-giving, a source of power, victory and liberation.
Great Saturday is the day between Jesus' death and His resurrection. It is the day of watchful expectation, in which mourning is being transformed into joy. The day embodies in the fullest possible sense the meaning of xarmolipi - joyful-sadness, which has dominated the celebrations of Great Week. The hymnographer of the Church has penetrated the profound mystery, and helps us to understand it through the following poetic dialogue that he has devised between Jesus and His Mother:
"Weep not for me, O Mother, beholding in the sepulcher the Son whom thou hast conceived without seed in thy womb. For I shall rise and shall be glorified, and as God I shall exalt in everlasting glory those who magnify thee with faith and love."
"O Son without beginning, in ways surpassing nature was I blessed at Thy strange birth, for I was spared all travail. But now beholding Thee, my God, a lifeless corpse, I am pierced by the sword of bitter sorrow. But arise, that I may be magnified."
"By mine own will the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble as they see me, clothed in the bloodstained garment of vengeance: for on the Cross as God have I struck down mine enemies, and I shall rise again and magnify thee."
"Let the creation rejoice exceedingly, let all those born on earth be glad: for hell, the enemy, has been despoiled. Ye women, come to meet me with sweet spices: for I am delivering Adam and Eve with all their offspring, and on the third day I shall rise again." (9th Ode of the Canon)
Great Saturday is the day of the pre-eminent rest. Christ observes a Sabbath rest in the tomb. His rest, however, is not inactivity but the fulfillment of the divine will and plan for the salvation of humankind and the cosmos. He who brought all things into being, makes all things new. The re-creation of the world has been accomplished once and for all. Through His incarnation, life and death Christ has filled all things with Himself He has opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the author of life would be dominated by corruption.
Saint Paul tells us that:
"God was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19). Hence, eternal life - real and self-generating - penetrated the depths of Hades. Christ who is the life of all destroyed death by His death. That is why the Church sings joyously "Things now are filled with light, the heaven and the earth and all that is beneath the earth" (Canon of Pascha).
The Church knows herself to be "the place, the eternal reality, where the presence of Christ vanquishes Satan, hell and death itself.
The solemn observance of Great Saturday help us to recall and celebrate the great truth that "despite the daily vicissitudes and contradictions of history and the abiding presence of hell within the human heart and human society," life has been liberated! Christ has broken the power of death.
It is not without significance that the icon of the Resurrection in our Church is the Descent of Christ into Hades, the place of the dead. This icon depicts a victorious Christ, reigned in glory, trampling upon death, and seizing Adam and Eve in His hands, plucking them from the abyss of hell. This icon expresses vividly the truths resulting from Christ's defeat of death by His death and Resurrection.
Icon Of The Commemoration Of Holy Saturday
Orthodox Celebration Of Holy Saturday