From time to time I notice comments concerning this day, Holy Saturday, which refer to it as a “day of rest” or one of “waiting and watching” – an “empty liturgical day”. This may be the understanding of the western churches but it is not the Orthodox understanding of this day as is made clear in this Homily by St. Ephrem the Syrian (c.306-373), quoted in the Office of Readings for the Friday in Easter Week:
Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.
Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.
Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strongroom and scattered all its treasure.
At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in so doing released life itself and set free a multitude of men. …
We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead. …
This theology/spirituality of the anastasis or ‘harrowing of hell’ emerges from a number of scriptural references, not all of them apocryphal. For example, in 1 Peter 3: 18b: ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison’ and 4:6 that ‘… the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does’. This doctrine seems, in part, a response to the statement in Job: ‘As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.’ (14: 11-14)
There is a rich liturgical observance of this work of Christ amongst the dead found in The Festal Menaion, translated into English by Mother Mary and Archimandrite (now Bishop) Kalistos Ware. It has always seemed sad to me that, liturgically, we leave Christ on the Cross after the Liturgy of Good Friday and so some years ago I used aspects of Orthodox Vespers of Good Friday and the Liturgy for Great and Holy Saturday to create a short Night Office of the Deposition and Burial of Christ which includes aspects of Tenebrae and concludes with the Blessing of Graves which can be celebrated on the evening of Good Friday. It also offers a service for those who may not be able to attend the afternoon Liturgy of the Day (Anglicans seem to have ignored the fact that some people are unable to attend services during the day!).
But there is more, it seems to me, than simply re-enacting the physical events of this movement from Cross to grave. Something of deep significance in Christ’s journey into the realm of Death and Hades. For the effect of His redemption works at both a conscious and unconscious level, affecting the whole cosmic order. As one write has observed:
‘As a phase of individuation, Edinger* points to the descent as having “the greatest importance to depth psychology” in that it represents “the ego’s deliberate descent into the unconscious.” The light of the ego is temporarily extinguished in the upper world and is carried into the lower world where it rescues worthy contents of the unconscious and even conquers Death itself. (*Edinger, op cit, ‘Christian Archetype’, p 110) The imagery of the descent into hell is analogous to the ego’s fall into the unconscious for a prolonged time and to a depth from which it emerges as one reborn, and as a result now seeks to serve the Self who serves the All. Jung views this prolonged encounter as the psychological equivalent of the integration of the collective unconscious and as forming “an essential part of the individuation process.”(Jung, ‘Aion’, CW9ii, par 72). Similarly, St John of the Cross speaks of “the cleansing fire of the dark night.” when, Divine light . . . acts upon the soul which is purged and prepared for perfect union in the same way as fire acts upon a log of wood in order to transform it into itself. (Soul Afire, op cit. 258-259)’ © ‘Higher Ground’ by Ann K. Elliott
Far from Holy and Great Saturday, lying as it does at the heart of the paschal mystery, being a day when ‘nothing happens’ it is, arguably, the great day of salvation. For whilst western artists have portrayed the glory of resurrection as the appearance of Christ to humankind, orthodox iconography presents us with the image of Christ drawing Adam and Eve, our archetypal ancestors, from their slumbers into the Mandorla of His divinity. This action symbolizes that his victory redeems all humankind, even back to the beginning. The dynamic of resurrection is taking place in the past, present, and future. (http://www.orthodoxroad.com/christs-descent-into-hell-icon-explanation/) And our ceaseless task is to open ourselves more and more deeply to Christ’s gracious, compassionate invitation into life.
“When in the new tomb you, the Redeemer of all, had been laid for the sake of all, hell became a laughing stock and, seeing you, quaked with fear; the bars were smashed, the gates were shattered, the graves were opened, the dead arose ...When you went down to death, O immortal Life, you slew hell with the lightning flash of your Godhead” (from: The Good Friday Matins of Great Saturday)