Reflection for April 11, 2020, Holy Saturday
Holy Saturday has always been a mysterious day. For fourteen years I was assigned to a parish in the worst neighborhood in St. Paul. For the most part, one can say, it was never quiet. Buses and traffic were typical, and we were right in the flight pattern for planes landing, so we always had those kinds of noises going on. But then there was the rap music, often so loud and raucous that it would set off the car alarms as the person would be driving up the street. If one was in the church while this would happen (there was rarely a time when it did not occur) not only would you be serenaded by the rap music and the host of car alarms, but the windows in the church would vibrate. There were also domestic fights that would frequently be taken out into the streets, gangs of roving young people who were rarely quiet, the dogs barking endlessly, probably because of all the other noise, and one neighbor even had a very hyper rooster that would begin crowing around four in the morning and keep going throughout the day.
As a total side point to the topic I want to cover today, I must say that I thought about the rooster every morning (how could you not?), but the day finally arrived when the reading at Mass was about Peter denying the Lord three times before the rooster crowed. There was no air conditioning in the church, so during the summer months the windows of the church were always open. I had Mass at 6:00 every morning, so this would be prime time for a hyper rooster to let the whole neighborhood know he was around. (Keep in mind that in that neighborhood no one would dare to do anything about the rooster for fear of the vengeance that would follow. Besides that, many of the neighbors had their own version of caustic noise that irritated everyone else, so how could anyone complain about someone else’s noise?) Right on cue, after the Gospel reading was complete, the rooster began to crow. I began the homily by asking who it was who had denied the Lord.
Anyway, back to the main point. All that I have said is background to understand the mystery of Holy Saturday morning in “Frogtown.” I would sit down for prayer in my usual spot, but the first thing I noticed was that I could not focus. Jesus was not there and the normal sense of His peace and presence was missing. Perhaps it was because the church was void of our Lord’s presence that I was able to notice the other mystery: it was silent in the neighborhood. There were certainly times where it would be relatively quiet, but silence was exceedingly rare. It would not remain absolutely silent for the whole hour, but there were periods, every year on Holy Saturday, when it was totally silent and it would always happen at the beginning of prayer.
This silence provided a wonderful opportunity to be with our Lady as she kept vigil at the tomb. Just silence and waiting. Keep in mind that in that time that our Lord was in the tomb, the Faith of the Church remained alive in one person only: the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Apostles did not expect our Lord to rise from the dead; Mary Magdalene and the other women came on Sunday morning to anoint the Body of Jesus, so they clearly did not expect Him to rise. Only our Blessed Lady had the unswerving faith and confidence that her Son would rise from the dead.
Yesterday I mentioned that the double use of the word “finished” in St. John’s account of the crucifixion brings us back to the second chapter of Genesis, to the time when God had just completed His work of creation. To put this into its proper context we have to remember that for the Jewish people, the day began and ended at sunset, not a midnight as we are accustomed. Recall that when Judas left the Last Supper, St. John makes a point that “It was night” (Jn 13:30). This means that everything that happened on Thursday night was, from a Jewish perspective, actually Friday because Friday began when the sun went down on Thursday evening. From the time of the Last Supper until Jesus was buried, everything happened on the sixth day, that is the day on which humanity was created. The work of redeeming humanity, or making us a new creation, took place on the sixth day.
This means that from sundown on Friday evening, after Jesus was buried, until sundown on Saturday evening, Jesus was in the tomb. This is the seventh day according to Jewish demarcation. Recall that God rested from all the work He had undertaken in creation on the seventh day. Now, He rests on the seventh day from His work of restoring creation.
During this time while the body and soul of our Lord were separated, His body was laid in the tomb, but His soul went to Sheol, also known as the netherworld or the abode of the dead. All the souls from Adam and Eve up to the thieves who died on the crosses next to Jesus were there. He did not go there to convert those who had chosen against God because, remember, once the soul leaves the body we can no longer change our minds. So, those who died rejecting God and failing to repent of their sins would be doomed for eternity. Instead, Jesus entered into the netherworld, or “prison” as St. Peter puts it (1 Pet 3:19), so those who died believing in the promises of God would now be able to make an act of faith in the One they had believed was to come to redeem them. On earth, however, there would have just been a mysterious silence.
One thing this “Stay at Home” order has done is to provide a sense of silence. The lack of airplanes and the greatly reduced traffic on Bass Lake Road has provided us with some quiet. The normal hustle and bustle of parish life has been non-existent and the kids are not in school. I truly miss these latter points, but I have been enjoying the quiet outside. While the parish office has not been its normal busy place, the phone and the emails have been anything but quiet. Thankfully, when I go to prayer, I don’t know if the phone is ringing or if an email came in.
Each of us can take advantage of the quiet around us; perhaps we can even find some real silence. Today in particular, remain with our Blessed Lady in the silence, in the emptiness or lack of Presence of our Lord. God always brings good out of difficult situations. I know from going on retreat that it takes a couple days for things inside to settle down so I can enter into the retreat. We have had a couple weeks now to quiet things down. Hopefully that will be enough to allow us to enter into the mystery of the silence of today. To feel the “nothingness” and experience the desolation is God’s way of preparing the soul for the fullness of our Lord’s return as He bursts open the gates of death and fills the earth with His glory.