A Guide for Prayer and Contemplation on Holy Saturday

Pascha icon

Prepared by Cliff Smith

 

HE SUFFERED UNDER PONTIUS PILATE,

WAS CRUCIFIED, DIED AND WAS BURIED.

HE DESCENDED INTO HELL.

Apostles’ Creed

 

CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD,

TRAMPLING DOWN DEATH BY DEATH,

AND UPON THOSE IN THE TOMBS BESTOWING LIFE.

Troparion of Pascha

Eastern Orthodox Liturgy

 

We typically overlook the significance of Holy Saturday, the day which the Eastern Church highlights as the Blessed Sabbath, the “Great and Holy Sabbath.” In the Orthodox tradition this is not only the day that Christ reposed in the earth, but the day that Christ “descended into hell” (or “to the dead”), “trampling down death by death.”

Great Saturday is the “middle day” which meaningfully connects the sorrow of Good Friday with the joy of Easter resurrection. For Holy Saturday is precisely the day of transformation, the day when victory grows from inside the defeat, the day when Christ’s divine Light and Love descended into the depths of the earth, shattering death, sin and evil, and all the powers of darkness.

The Orthodox Church emphasizes the image and idea that the descent into hell is the last and culminating step in the act of the Incarnation of God. It is the act of the One who is the source and giver of life invading the realm of death. It expressed the utter completeness and fullness of the redemption which Christ offers to all the human race and all of creation. It powerfully proclaims: There is no place God is not! All things and all places are filled with God, with His life and His light.

Each feast in the Orthodox world has its particular icon. The Easter (or Pascha) icon is named “The Descent Into Hell.” (For the Eastern Church, an icon is not simply a religious picture. It is a depiction that, when related to contemplatively, becomes a medium of revelation, a grace-inspired encounter with the Divine. Think of the icon as a window fostering a communion between the divine archetype imaged in the icon and you, the praying contemplator).

In “The Descent Into Hell” icon, Christ is shown bringing first Adam and Eve and then all the righteous of former times out of the place of death. Hell is shown as a gaping black hole into which Christ descends as conqueror. The gates of death are shattered and shown lying across one another in the shape of a cross. This icon leads us to image and to “feel” that by the powerful action of descending into hell, Christ makes death itself the final step to “life without end.”

Wendy M. Wright, in The Rising, writes that the descent to the dead as set forth in the Orthodox tradition “speaks symbolically to the length and breadth of divine compassion, to the extent of the redemptive promise and to the utter intimacy of a God whose love penetrates to the furthest reaches of creation’s fallen depths.” “Christ is Risen!” from the dead and has opened for us the way to resurrection. 

Meditate prayerfully upon these antiphons from the Mattins Service on Holy and Great Saturday of the Orthodox Church. What images do they prompt in you? What insights or understandings? What inspirations? What new or renewed dedications? What “new life” begins to stir? Pray them and then let God speak to you.

  • Who can describe this strange and terrible thing? The Lord of Creation today accepts the Passion and dies for our sake?
  • O strange wonder, new to man! He who granted me the breath of life is carried lifeless in Joseph’s hands to burial.
  • O Life, how canst Thou die? How canst Thou dwell in a tomb? Yet Thou dost destroy death’s kingdom and raise the dead from hell.
  • By dying, O my God, Thou puttest death to death through Thy divine power.
  • When Thou wast laid in a tomb, O Christ the Creator, the foundations of hell were shaken and the graves of mortal men were opened.
  • The flesh of God is hidden now beneath the earth, like a candle underneath a bushel, and it drives away the darkness in hell.
  • Buried in the earth like a grain of wheat, Thou hast yielded a rich harvest, rising to life the mortal sons of Adam.
  • Dead in outward appearance, yet alive as God, O Jesus, Thou leadest up the fallen from earth to heaven.
  • Christ the Life, by tasting death, has delivered mortal men from death, and now gives life to all.
  • Willingly, O Saviour, Thou hast gone down beneath the earth, and Thou hast restored the dead to life, leading them back to the glory of the Father.
  • How great the joy, how full the gladness, that Thou hast brought to those in hell, shining as lightning in its gloomy depths.
  • O my Jesus, Fountain of Life, Thou hast brought me back to life when I was dead through bitter sin.
  • The earth, O Lord, is full of Thy mercy: teach me thy statutes and thy way of goodness.
  • Help me, and I shall be saved, and my study shall be ever in thy statutes.
  • Let Thy mercy come also upon me, O Lord, even thy salvation, according to Thy word.
  • How sweet are Thy words unto my taste! Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth.
  • Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
  • My soul is continually in Thy hands.
  • O life-giving Vine, Thou wast lifted up from the earth, yet hast thou poured out the wine of salvation. I praise Thy Passion, and Thy Cross, and Thy Descent to the dead.
  • The whole creation was altered by Thy Passion: for all things suffered with Thee, knowing O Word, that thou holdest all in unity.

From The Lenten Triodion of the Orthodox Church

SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND PRAYER

  • In today’s world, where do the “powers of darkness” and evil seem to reign supreme? Imagine Christ’s light and redeeming love penetrating and transforming these “realms of the dead” in life. What would life be like then? Pray that it may be so.
  • Pray that the leaders and peoples of all Nations may repent, give up hatred and killing, and seek love and abiding peace.
  • Who do you regard as the “Enemy” in the world or in your own life? Pray to God for your enemies.
  • What are the “wrongful ways” within yourself? At this time in your life, what do you want to “give death to,” so that “new life in Christ” can be realized?
  • Pray for the forgiveness of anything for which you seek pardon and absolution. Allow Christ’s merciful and forgiving love to “descend” to the depths of your being.
  • Bring to mind and offer thankful prayer for the remembered lives of those loved and significant persons in your life who have died.
  • Pray for the restoration of all creation, and for that fullness of time when

He will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more.

Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

Revelation 21:4

 

RESURRECTION MORNING

Will resurrection morning come? Grave cloths

and spices veil that mutilated flesh

Love made into a man for us. Conspiring darkness

of this stony sepulchre curves a sheltering vault

about the corpse of God.

 

Night-silent are all birds

and winds make no sound, waiting. Rocks

are massive sentinels honey-combed with tombs.

The guards lean on their spears, mistrustful in the mute

uncanny vigilance of this garden for the dead.

 

Out of the night I cry unto thee, O Lord,

and in the hollow sound shell of my everlasting tomb

I raise my death-stopped voice and sing

the canticle of the grave, the song of annihilation.

 

Will resurrection morning come?

Who could have thought such kingly limbs could lie so still!

O long this vigil to the dawn!

World that Word spoke strains for the lilt of his stricken tongue,

yearns, shocked, for the press of his unstirring foot.

No night songster lifts its beak. No moon gleams.

Darkness over the face of the earth…. The brooding night

envelopes those that slew and those that mourn the slain.

Magdalen lies down in the tent of her hair, and weeps.

 

Out of the night I cry unto thee, O lord!

In the black, bitter salt shrubs of the desert,

in the cruel eclipse, in the hollow pit of emptiness, 

I will wait for thee, Lord, as thou commandest me.

 

Will resurrection morning come?

Who stirs in the womb-heavy dimness?

(The root in the deep dungeons of the soil,

the sap in the trunk’s secret tunnels, the seed

swelling to life in the grave of  last year’s mold.)

 

Death where is your sting?

Light levels the dark

like a warrior’s shaft. The soldiers swoon with fear

as the indomitable Word speaks the universe once more.

In the sleeping land

a gray dawn lips the rim of the world and turns to gold.

Sorrow lasts but a night, and joy has come with the sun.

 

Out of the night I cry unto thee, O Lord.

The terror of the grave surrounds me with dread —

but thou art my help in time of trouble, my rock:

my soul waits patiently for thy perpetual light.

Barbara Dent

From: My Only Friend Is Darkness

 

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,

Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;

Love lives again, that with the dead has been:

Love is come again, Like wheat that springeth green.

 

In the grave they laid him, Love whom men had slain,

Thinking that he would never wake again,

Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen;

Love is come again, Like wheat that springeth green.

 

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,

He that for three days in the grave has lain;

Quick from the dead, my risen Lord is seen.

Love is come again, Like wheat that springeth green.

 

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,

Thy touch can call us back to life again,

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been.

Love is come again, Like wheat that springeth green.

French carol

Text: John M. C. Crum

Advent Prayer Vigil

Take a break from the hustle and bustle and join us in our sanctuary for the Advent Prayer Vigil.

St. Mark's sanctuaryThe Prayer Vigil offers time to sit in silence, quiet the self and to be still and know that God is God. It is time to prayerfully meditate on Advent – the coming of Christ – and to know him as Emmanuel, “God with us,” who has the power to transform our hearts, lives and even this broken world in which we live.
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