by the Rev. Kim Seidman
Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, barely registers a blip on the Holy Week radar. The liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter are dramatic and demanding. By comparison, the liturgy for Holy Saturday is plain and simple. Its brevity makes it easy to overlook.
It is also hard to find language in liminal space, which may explain why the longest day of the church year features the shortest liturgy in our prayer book. Many have never experienced a Holy Saturday service. Given that Good Friday’s Passion Gospel concludes with the burial, and the Great Vigil begins in the tomb, Holy Saturday can feel nonessential, like an extra chapter that can be cut without compromising the story. The rubrics direct “When there is a liturgy for the day,” which can indicate its observance is optional. As a rector, I only offered it a handful of times. It was lightly attended, usually by members of the altar guild pausing before preparing the sanctuary for Easter. Any or all of these reasons may contribute to the liturgy being one of the least observed in our common life.
But this year, Holy Saturday may be worth our attention. Not that clergy need one more service to plan in a virtual reality. I mean that the liturgy can offer the church language for our lived experience here and now, in the midst of our present disaster. On Holy Saturday, the tomb is sealed tight, the stench of death lingers, and the world waits for a miracle.
The gospels are silent about the day after Jesus died. The disciples have scattered, fearful and grieving. The few loved ones present at the crucifixion were separated abruptly, normal burial customs abbreviated. A stone sealed the tomb, physically separating them from his body.
Our world is in the midst of a long Holy Saturday. We are scattered in various states of shock and grief. Waiting for physical distancing to flatten the curve. Waiting for the economic fallout. Waiting for the death toll. Waiting for an uncertain future.
How are we to pray at a time like this? The liturgy for the day can be our guide. The service for Holy Saturday begins and ends on page 283 in the Book of Common Prayer. The rubrics instruct “There is no celebration of Holy Eucharist on this day.” The Liturgy of the Word proclaims the certainty and finality of death, and also cries out to God for deliverance. The readings give us words for this terrible in-between time. The prayers of the faithful uttered in times of distress and despair are called lament.
The majority of Psalms are categorized as lament psalms. The Book of Lamentations is an entire book written in tears. Most of the Book of Job is written amidst sackcloth and ashes. The poetry and prose is stark and raw. These ancient texts bear witness to the people of God crying out for divine deliverance when enemies threaten and death is all around.
Our lectionary avoids a considerable amount of the so-called negative emotions in selections for public worship. Expressions of rage, grief, violence and despair have been heavily edited to favor prayers of praise and petition over lament. The lack of exposure to the full expression of human experience in prayer means many Christians lack language to pray to God when the world turns upside down. And if we cannot speak, we wither away.
Prayers of lament have a loose four part structure: crying out for God’s attention, a detailed complaint, specific request for help, and trust in God’s hearing and response.
Jesus quotes Psalm 22 as he suffers upon the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The church would do well to recover the ancient practice of lament on this long Holy Saturday. Real relationship demands it, and God can take it. Crying out “God, don’t you see what is happening down here? Can’t you hear our prayers? Why don’t you do something?” is not a lack of faith. Demanding God’s attention and immediate intervention is the very essence of faith. It is asserting our belief that God exists and can see, hears our cries and will act. Because on Holy Saturday, the world waits for a miracle.
The Rev. Kim Seidman is the Vicar and Executive Director of Cathedral Ridge.