It is a strange thing for me to say that Great and Holy Saturday is one of my favorite services in the entire Orthodox Church year. The adjectival phrase ‘favorite service’ would have had no meaning for me when I was Reformed, because all Reformed services are either identical or aspire to be so. The idea that certain seasons are more ‘Godly’ than others is a superstition, and as we all know, superstitions cannot be redeemed, only repented of. It made more sense to me as a Pentecostal to speak of a favorite service, because Pentecostal services for all of their aesthetic failings have a wonderful open-endedness to them that invite our Lord the Spirit to participate. I still remember Pentecostal services where there was a palpable presence and God seemed especially close. Interestingly, none of them occurred in an air-conditioned building. I often remark that Pentecostals do instinctively what the Orthodox do liturgically. There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence; there is a lot of fleshy indulgence in even the best of Pentecostalism as there is a lot of tedious, flesh-crucifying ritualism in even the best of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, that statement is roughly true, but only roughly.
I never miss the Great and Holy Saturday service. It is scheduled at an inconvenient time, on Saturday morning after you’ve already spent the entire previous day in church re-enacting the Passion and sacrifice of Christ on the Cross in three separate, seemingly interminable services. I do not fault my fellow Orthodox who wish to take a breather on Saturday morning between the rigors of Holy Friday and the bright explosion of the midnight Paschal service, but you’ll always find me there. The church is somber, still decorated in the funereal black of Great and Holy Friday. Everything is incredibly still. Great and Holy Saturday is the pause between the cosmic systole and the cosmic diastole. The Bridegroom icon, so prominent in the previous Holy week services, is nowhere to be seen. Chances are, you’re a little woozy from lack of food. Strict fasting, meaning water only, is enjoined between midnight on Great and Holy Friday and the end of the Paschal liturgy. This is the final sprint after the long marathon of Lent, and it bites deeply.
Halfway through the service, the tone immediately changes. Gone are the wailing and the lamentations of the previous service, and the sixth Old Testament reading begins to sound the note of Paschal triumph with the reading of the Song of Moses and Miriam from the Book of Exodus:
I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a man of war;
The LORD is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea,
and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power,
your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.
At the end of the final reading from the Greek book of Daniel known as the Song of the Three Holy Children, and the Epistle reading, the priest emerges from behind the iconostasis with a baker containing laurel leaves and ropes petals. As the chanters sing Psalm 82, at the refrain “O God arise and judge the earth, for all nations are Yours” the priest flings the leaves and petals all over the church, symbolizing our Lord’s triumph (in the ancient Greek games the victors were given crowns of laurel and rose) over death, Hell, and the Devil. I don’t care how attached you are to your own tradition, and whether you think the Orthodox Church primitive, or idolatrous, or irrelevant, or deader than Cool Hand Luke’s snapping turtle. Every baptized Trinitarian Christian along the spectrum from Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori to Dr. Peter Ruckman ought at least once in their life to experience the full Paschal cycle of Orthodox Holy Week services, but especially this one.
For this is the service above all others that reminds us that God became Meat. Every death produces two horrors from which people instinctively recoil; a corpse and a spook. The death of God the Son was no exception. This was the perihelion of the heavenly comet. This was the birth of God the Corpse:
“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.”
And God the Spook.
“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.”
There is a lot of theological speculation, even in Orthodox circles, about the extent and scope of our Lord’s ministry in the realm of the dead, but I as a Western Christian was unprepared for the centrality of the Harrowing of Hell, as we Westerners call it, in the Eastern tradition. The metaphor used by CS Lewis is particularly apropos on Great and Holy Saturday. He said, and I am quoting from memory, that our Lord’s descent into Hell was like a strong man bending extremely low in order to get underneath a great burden, lift it to his shoulders, then stand erect, and finally, to carry it away. This lends a cosmic dimension to the Harrowing of Hell. All will be resurrected, but not all will find it a blessing. I can even imagine the Classical Hades with its indistinct gloom and shivery mists as preferable to His bright and fiery presence for many souls, one of which I am in constant danger of becoming.
The most comforting interpretation of the Harrowing of Hell, though, is the one I have most recently become familiar with. St Macarios of Egypt writes in his eleventh Spiritual Homily: “When you hear that the Lord in the old days delivered souls from hell and prison and that He descended into hell and performed a glorious deed, do not think that all these events are far from your soul… So the Lord comes into the souls that seek Him, into the depth of the heart’s hell, and there commands death, saying: ‘Release the imprisoned souls which have sought Me and which you hold by force’. And He shatters the heavy stones weighing on the soul, opens graves, raises the true dead from death, brings the imprisoned soul from the dark prison… Is it difficult for God to enter death and, even more, into the depth of the heart and to call out dead Adam from there?… If the sun, being created, passes everywhere through windows and doors, even to the caves of lions and the holes of creeping creatures, and comes out without any harm, the more so does God and the Lord of everything enter caves and abodes in which death has settled, and also souls, and, having released Adam from there, [remains] unfettered by death. Similarly, rain coming down from the sky reaches the nethermost parts of the earth, moistens and renews the roots there and gives birth to new shoots.”
So is the circle unbroken, from the depths of the heart to the farthest galaxy, from Evangelical salvationism through ancient Christianity and back again. Hell is no more distant and no deeper than your own heart, and Christ can descend there. Even there.