Today is Holy Saturday. A day that, were it not for a vigil like this where we pause here between the Cross and Resurrection, we might otherwise pass over and fail to notice. But here we are, on the sabbath day, the day that Christ’s body rested in the tomb.
Immediately prior to this evening’s gospel reading we have Luke’s account of the burial of Jesus. An event that we re-enacted with the children yesterday at our sixth and final station of the cross when we wrapped an icon of Jesus in a piece of white linen and laid it in a tomb. Luke tells us that the women—Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and others—had followed Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb and witnessed his body being laid there. Luke then tells us that from there they left and prepared spices and ointments for Jesus’ body. That was Friday evening. Luke continues, “On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment,” (23:56). That’s today, the Jewish sabbath turned Holy Saturday.
What makes today Holy Saturday, what makes it an important day for the life of the Church, is what the very same women discover when they return to the tomb on the first day of the week, the day after the sabbath—that’s Sunday. “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared,” (24:1). So far, nothing out of the ordinary. There are the women closest to Jesus returning to the tomb to prepare the body, the body of a dead man. It’s not as if they set off for the tomb saying to themselves, “Well, we’ve got the spices just in case he’s still dead, but let’s hope he’s alive again.” No, they knew that dead people remained dead and Jesus had most certainly died. With their very own eyes they witnessed him nailed to a cross and lifted up to the jeers and taunts of the crowd. With their very own eyes they saw his lifeless body laid to rest in a virgin tomb. And we will name this very reality when we reaffirm our baptismal covenant shortly in the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…”
But then something happened: “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body,” (24:2-3). And they were “perplexed,” confounded. Peter was “amazed.” The mood here as Easter begins is one of surprise, astonishment, fear and confusion. Yes, as the angels remind the women, Jesus did say that something like this would occur, but they still don’t know what’s going on, what it all means, and what will happen next. This was a totally unexpected and unforeseen situation, something they had zero frame of reference for.
The newness of this event, it’s surprising and unexpected nature, is an important point and it raises a question: something very odd has happened, but what?
In tomorrow’s gospel reading we will hear the story of a very personal encounter of the risen Jesus with Mary. But we don’t have that here on Holy Saturday, not yet. Rather, on Holy Saturday the Church waits at the Lord’s tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his Passion and death and on his descent into Hell, and awaiting his resurrection. What we experience today is another dimension, another facet of the jewel that is the resurrection of our Lord, and if you turn to p.19 of your bulletin you’ll find there an icon of the resurrection which I want us to focus on for a few minutes as a way of being led deeper into this other dimension of the gospel which we find ourselves in on Holy Saturday.
Take a moment to look and to listen. Here is Jesus, descended to the dead, taking Adam and Eve by the hand. Notice that he literally takes hold of them, firmly grabbing ahold of their wrists—their own hands limp—pulling them up out of the grave, doing for them what they cannot do for themselves. And they’re surrounded by various kings and prophets of the Old Testament.
This seems a rather long way from the empty tomb which we’ve just heard about in Luke’s gospel, doesn’t it? Yet, this icon speaks to us of the reality at the very heart of the resurrection of Jesus Christ: the re-making of creation itself.
Holy Saturday is the day of New Creation. Here is God with Adam and Eve: it begins again where it all began in the first place.
This is why the early Christians (and still the Eastern Church today) regarded Sunday as the “eighth day” of the seven day week: “It’s the start of a new world because it’s the day of the resurrection of Christ.”
It is no accident then that the first reading we heard this evening was the Creation account from Genesis which ended with the words: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation,” (2:3). The sabbath. So too this sabbath, Holy Saturday, Christ rests in the tomb bringing to completion a New Creation. A New Creation over which death has no dominion because Christ has trampled down death by his death, bestowing life upon all those who lay in the tombs—bestowing life upon you and I. In the icon the risen and victorious Christ is standing on the gates of hell, trampled down under his feet. Christ who is Life, kicking down the doors of hell, ending deaths dominion by his death. I love this verse from the Orthodox hymn Lord I Call: “Today hell cries out groaning: “My dominion has been shattered. I received a dead man as one of the dead, but against him I could not prevail. From eternity I had ruled the dead, but behold, he raises all. Because of him do I perish.”
But behold, he raises all. This is the resurrection not only of Jesus but of Adam and Eve as well. Their life had been under the dominion of death, a death that came through the sin of their disobedience and spread to the whole human race. But Christ, the New Adam, brings life through his loving obedience to the Father and through him Adam and Eve are raised up to new life as well.
And yet, look closely at their faces. This is not the youthful Adam and Eve of Eden. This is Adam and Eve having grown old, “their faces are lined by suffering and experience, by guilt, by the knowledge of good and evil, scarred by life and history.” This is Adam and Eve having lost their innocence. This is us, all of us, who carry around with us the marks of history, of experience, of the knowledge of good and evil, pain received and pain given. Those are our faces, because we know the history of Adam and Eve in ourselves.
New Creation means that on Holy Saturday Jesus reaches down and touches those faces. He doesn’t make them young again and return them to their prior innocence. He deals with humanity as it has become, as it really is, marked by suffering, struggling, and failure. The resurrection is not about God erasing our story, our pain or failure. It is, rather, about how Jesus takes our pain and failure and transfigures them, infuses them with a life that transcends death, and makes something beautiful yet again.
Just as the risen life of Christ raises up Adam and Eve so too it raises us up. It is this life, the risen life of Jesus, which our lives are grafted onto in baptism. As Paul wrote in our Romans reading this evening: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
This is the gospel: that as Christ rested in the tomb he brought something from nothing, life from death, light from darkness. All of a sudden, a new dimension of human existence explodes into the present, one liberated from the powers of sin and death, one full of the light and life of the risen Jesus.
Know that today, wherever sin and death reign in your life, Christ wants to heal you and raise you up with him to new life. And he does this simply by being present, for where Christ is there is life. That’s the other thing that the empty tomb opens up for Adam and Eve and for you and I as well: hope. He brings life and light not to those who are perfect as peaches but to real human creatures whose pain and experiences are the lines etched on our faces. In other words, when Christ brings forth a New Creation he does not discard the old, as if he simply wound back the tape of history and re-recorded over the top. He does not write off what we have become. No: As we prayed together earlier on, God created all things in wonderful beauty and order and yet the New Creation is still more wonderful yet. He takes what we are and plants new and fresh beauty and glory, “in faces like yours and mine, in lives like yours and mine, in Adam and Eve just as they are there depicted.” We see here what we actually are and have been made in Jesus Christ—new creations. And in each moment when we feel ourselves fail we may begin again in the power and strength of the risen Jesus. For in him we might begin anew each and every day. This is Holy Saturday. Amen.
 A question raised by N.T. Wright in his Luke for Everyone commentary.
 In what follows I am heavily indebted to a sermon preached by Lord Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Canterbury) on the occasion of the blessing of a newly written icon of the Resurrection.