A Quiet Day

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“Christ in Limbo,” a depiction of the Harrowing of Hell, Fra Angelico, c. 1441

Devotional for Saturday of Holy Week (April 11)

Psalm 42 (NLT)

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”

My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!
Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.
But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”
Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

Why am I discouraged?

Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

In the midst of this viral plague we endure, we have the opportunity to recover something about our approach to Easter.

There was a time when the Saturday before Easter was thought of as the quietest day of the year. Sometimes called “Easter Eve” or “Black Saturday,” it is when we are to commemorate the full day Jesus was in the tomb. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the day is treated as a funeral. On the calendar we follow, it is marked “Easter Vigil.”

Contrast that somber tone with how we usually approach the Saturday before Easter. The more secular aspects of Easter—the egg hunts, the candy, the spring festivals—tend to occur on church grounds that day. I do not begrudge those events, and I look forward to them returning, particularly as we do a good job of turning them into opportunities to reach the unchurched.

But as we forego those events this year, let’s at least remember where we are in the story. Jesus is dead. As far as the disciples are concerned, the dream of a new world is gone—Jesus is dead.

For them, this is a day of weeping, for trembling in fear behind locked doors, wondering if every footstep is a soldier coming for them. Three years of ministry are accounted as wasted time.

They long for God. (Do we long for God?) Their hearts are breaking. (Do ours?) It would not surprise me if these good Jews begin singing Psalm 42 to themselves, quietly, very quietly.

We also should meditate on the mystery of what Jesus experienced while dead. A couple of Bible passages have shaped this speculation over the centuries:

1 Peter 3:18-20 (NLT)

Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.

So he went and preached to the spirits in prison—those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood.

There also is an obscure passage in Ephesians 4:7-10 talking about Jesus’ ascending and descending, with translators debating where it was he descended, our world or hell.

Out of those verses came the concept of the “Harrowing of Hell,” the idea that in his death, Jesus burst into the underworld and freed those who died before him, making it possible for them to believe in the work of the cross and be saved.

Church leaders through the centuries, including John Wesley, have struggled with this idea. I think the notion has had two positive results, however.

First, it led to some fascinating medieval art. Sometimes in these paintings you’ll find squashed demons, all obviously standing too near the door when Jesus made his assault.

More importantly, we are reminded that Jesus Christ’s act of salvation had repercussions far beyond what we can comprehend. We see astonishing, magnificent grace in his death, and we understand there is even more grace unseen.

Lord, may your Spirit guide us in a time of quiet reflection today, and on the Holy Saturdays to come.

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