Holy Saturday

By Glenda | April 11, 2009

Today, in the Christian tradition, is Holy Saturday. Even for non-Christians, the associations to this holiday (holy day) can carry powerful life lessons.

The Christian liturgy says that Holy Saturday falls between Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, and Easter Sunday, when Jesus was seen, resurrected. Thus Holy Saturday is the time between death and new life. Some Christian creeds even state that during this time Jesus “descended into hell” before “rising again.”

Whether or not one subscribes to the Christian spiritual tradition or even to the literal interpretation of the Christian creed, we can all, perhaps, benefit from reflecting on those times in our own lives when we ourselves are, or seem to be, in transition between death and new life, those times when some aspect of our lives has “died” but the “newness of life” has not emerged, when we “descend into hell,” so to speak.

Few of us easily call that a holy time, I dare say. But how helpful it is to frame it that way. It is, or can be, a sacred time indeed.

Buddhists call this state a “bardo,” and a rimpoche I heard speak once said that any time of transition can be a “bardo,” the “in-between” state between one thing and another, the time when things may seem uncertain, mysterious, unsettling, even frightening. The time, for example, after a divorce brings a marriage to an end but before a new way of life has emerged. The time after someone has lost a job but before a new situation evolves. Our whole culture, perhaps the whole world, seems now to be in a bardo, a time of transition, during the global economic downturn.

Such a period of time is fraught with meaning, not only for someone who has “crossed over,” like Jesus, but also for those left behind, in grief or confusion, watching, waiting. We actually are told little in the Gospels about what happened to Jesus during Holy Saturday, but we know a good bit more about what happened to those associated with him. What an adjustment was required!

Christian tradition says that Jesus was laid in a tomb during that time. Alone. In mystery. A bardo. A time of transition. We forget that, sometimes, when we want to race from Good Friday to Easter in our own lives. We want to get from our time of suffering to our renewal instantly, easily. Rarely is this the case.

Jewish and some Native American traditions alike set aside a year-long period of adjustment for bereaved individuals after a death in the family, with specific proscriptions and rituals and safeguards. Some groups of native people actually require that individuals in grief isolate themselves, have times of literal solitude, as they make adjustments to the new situation, not only for their own sake, but also for the well being of the entire group. How easily we forget that our transitions affect others.

Ancient religions, like that in Egypt, as one obvious example, placed great emphasis on how one should behave and even what one might safely say or do during such a time. The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Dead are both extensive teachings on preparing for what I am here calling our “Holy Saturdays.”

What wisdom there is in that. Our present culture too often considers such a “bardo” an unnecessary luxury. Grief can take a long time, and too many of us forget that; when a friend or loved one is in grief; we may sincerely send our condolences and then go on about our business, forgetting that those in grief may need us more later than immediately following a death.

One minister I knew amazed me once, saying that as a “professional” spiritual leader, he just couldn’t understand why in six months he hadn’t “gotten over” his only son’s death in a motor cycle accident. I tried to say to him, in the kindest way, that I thought he had unrealistic expectations of himself and that he might consider how he could make his time of grieving a special “rite of passage” so that he emerged from it not only a different person, but a person more whole, more expanded, more wise and loving. And I gently reminded him that Holy Saturday can take a long time for some of us, especially if we do not have the right kind of practice or support.

Those of us in transitions other than that caused by a death may still benefit much by considering ourselves to be in a “holy” state, in a state like that of Holy Saturday. What can we learn, then, from the Christian story?

Jesus, we are told, was hastily buried before sundown on Friday in a tomb cut out of a rocky cliffside, and a huge stone was rolled across the entrance. A guard was set outside the tomb. After that we know nothing about what went on inside the tomb until, two days later Mary Magdalene and others found the tomb empty and then encountered a “risen” Christ, as Jesus in his new resurrected form is called.

What Jesus experienced during that time we can only imagine. He had suffered humiliation, brutal physical abuse, and even physical death, all this after having had the most extraordinary success as a teacher and healer, with such a large following of disciples and others who believed that he was “the chosen one of God” that was expected by the Jewish community. What a reversal. And in the tomb, what then, on Holy Saturday? How did the transformation occur? We are not told. Some aspects of our transitions are and remain mysterious, even to us.

We do know what went on outside the tomb on Holy Saturday. We do know what happened to those individuals close to Jesus—his family and his disciples and his followers. They all were scattered, some in fright, some in grief, all no doubt in a state of shock. Eventually the disciples, we are told, gathered together as they tried to console one another or perhaps tried to make some kind of sense of what had just happened.

Surely they were not calmly in a state of serene transition! Jesus, we are told in the Gospels, had warned them about what might happen, had tried to prepare them and give them the means to get through such a time. But they were still taken aback by events. The disciples had, the Gospels say, gone out previously while Jesus was alive and had done great things, healed the sick, preached and practiced great love and wisdom. But on Holy Saturday they easily lost touch with all that.

Isn’t that familiar? When we encounter our own Holy Saturdays, don’t we find ourselves in a similar state of shock, our minds scattered? Aren’t we also frightened, confused, having difficulty making sense of what has occurred? Don’t we seem to forget all that we have been taught or have experienced that might help us through such times?
We are so hard on ourselves about that, too. So I commend us to the Christian church’s wisdom in calling this a “holy” time, making it a sacred time, a ritualistic time.
What would it be like if we could give ourselves permission, and have the permission of those closest to us, to withdraw during our own “Holy Saturdays,” not into a tomb, to be sure, but into some place of solitude, for a period of time? There, we might be emptied out of our old self, after having suffered our own inner “crucifixion” of something precious to us—some old way of life or being, some hope, dream, desire, some job, some love, some relationship. Having lost all of that, beyond any hope of going back to the old way of being, we could, in the sanctity of “Holy Saturday,” in a sacred way, transition into the next phase, the new thing, the “resurrected” life.

What would it be like if we supported each other in such times? One woman I knew said, after her mother’s death, that she fantasized about going off by herself to a cave somewhere, where she could be alone, and people would just show up a couple of times a day and leave cooked rice and lentils at the entrance to the cave and then leave, without saying a word to her. Instead she felt she had to continue at her job, as though nothing had happened, and she felt she had to continue being a “good mom,” taking care of everything for the family, even though her heart wasn’t in it. Her heart was broken, in grief. Her heart, shall we say, was going through Holy Saturday. But nobody knew what to do for her or even with her.

The ancient ones had whole manuscripts given over to instructions for such times. Both the Egyptians and the Tibetan Buddhists had, as previously mentioned, Books of the Dead, with elaborate instructions for getting through the “bardo” times. Present day counselors and ministers are often the ones who can offer contemporary suggestions to us for our own rituals.

For me personally, I have often said to myself, on behalf of myself, Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Garden of Gestheseme shortly before his arrest and crucifixion, “Can you not watch with me one hour?”

When I am in my own internal “Holy Saturday” experience, I know I need to be still, to trust myself and life and Spirit to get me through to the other side of whatever is happening. Remembering the mystery of Holy Saturday, remembering that somehow, beneath the surface of what I know or can imagine, hidden from my ego’s sight, miracles can happen. I can be transformed.

So, in those times, I just want to lie down and experience the emptiness, the letting go into the experience. Just to be empty of all thought, plan, reasoning. Just be there, still. Participate in the bardo, the transition.

But when I try to do that, I notice that there are those other parts of me, parts like the disciples, that are scattered, busy blaming or reacting, busy giving up or charging forward prematurely, feeling shame or hopelessness or horror, or whatever. So I have to say to those parts of me “Can you not just be here quietly, patiently, waiting, can you not watch with me one hour?”

Usually it’s more than an hour, of course. And there’s the rub.

Even in the early centuries of Buddhism, there was much controversy over the timing of reincarnation, with one side arguing that rebirth follows immediately after death, and the other saying that there must be an interval between the two. With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, belief in a transitional period prevailed.

But we, and those living with us, want our transitional periods to be over, if possible, within an hour, or in a day, at least in a reasonably short time.

But Holy Saturday is not reasonable. Nothing about it is reasonable. And to get to Easter Sunday we have to accept that. We have to accept, often, the mysterious, the non-rational, even the miraculous. We have to be willing and able to be transformed, as Jesus was transformed, and as the disciples were transformed.

For we find, later in the Acts of the Apostles that those same frightened, scattered individuals that ran away and hid, that didn’t even recognize the risen Christ when they saw him, later, after the bardo of transition had occurred (or as the Christian church has it, after they were filled with the fire and passion of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost), those same individuals went out all over the known world bravely to do the work that they had been called by Jesus to do. They were newly empowered. And they changed the history of the world.

Why, we may ask, did Jesus have to die for all that to happen? Why do we have to suffer in order to transform? I don’t know. I don’t even know that we do have to. What I do know, for certain, is that whether we have to or not, most of us do suffer. As the Buddha taught, suffering is ever-present somewhere in our world, and our “enlightenment” involves knowing how to deal with suffering, our own and that around us.

So, what can these spiritual traditions—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and others—tell us that will help us to make our own transitions? A great deal.
The Buddhist teachings about the bardo refer to times when our usual way of life becomes suspended, and so there is a time of great opportunity as well as a time of great danger. As one Buddhist writer has said, “Such times can prove fruitful for spiritual progress, as external constraints diminish, although they offer challenges because our unskillful impulses can come to the fore.”
So, we can arrange our lives during such times so that our usual way of life is suspended. We can take a time out, small or large, or several time outs. We can reduce external constraints.
According to Tibetan tradition, during the bardo after death and before one’s next birth, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence from, just after death, very clear understanding and experience of reality, to, later on, terrifying hallucinations arising from the impulses of one’s previous habitual ways of thought or action.
Is that not true for us, as well, during such times as our own bardos, our own Holy Saturdays? Do we not have moments of the richest clarity and profound sacredness, as well as wild imaginings, chaotic thoughts, confused actions, all based on whatever we have known and dealt with and practiced prior to our times of challenge?
The Buddhist practice is largely one of learning how to calm and even eliminate these wild thought patterns, these unhelpful habits of thought. We too can practice, in our daily lives, stilling our frantic minds, so that in time of great transition, we are prepared. I have heard that the Dali Lama, the senior Tibetan Buddhist in the world, sets his wrist watch alarm to ring once each hour during the day, to remind him of his own mortality, and he spends a few minutes each time stilling himself, meditating on the ultimate state of reality and of his own largest identity that transcends death.
What can the Jewish tradition teach us about all this? Many things. Passover is the Jewish celebration of the sacred holy day when the angel of death “passed over” and spared the lives of the Israelites and ultimately freed them from slavery. (The Christian Gospels state that Jesus’ last supper was a Passover seder or ritual meal (Luke 22: 15-1). Easter is actually still called “Passover,” or a derivative of that word, in most languages other than English, and Easter’s central theme is that Christ was the Passover’s sacrificial lamb in human form.)
The celebration of Passover is also called “The Feast of the Unleavened Bread.” So it is a time that is not “yeasty or inflated” but is rather a sacrificial time, a time when people are held to strict ritual guidelines, including fasting and the eating of bitter herbs along with unleavened bread and a sacrificed lamb. Traditional Jewish people were to do no manual work during the ritualized days of Passover (that is, in fact, why Jesus was so hastily buried before sundown), and people were to fast and pray and consider their own true nature and the goodness of God and be grateful.
Observant Jewish people not only must not eat anything “leavened,” but must get rid of any leavening agent, get it completely out of their homes; that includes not only bread stuffs but also ingredients in, for example, beer or other food stuffs. So there is a “house cleaning,” an emptying out. (Good practice for us, as well, internally, a ritual house cleaning, an emptying out of what may “inflate” us.)
The associations to the unleavened bread also offer us instructions for getting through our transitions. One writer comments: “The Torah contains a divine commandment to eat matzo (unleavened bread) on the first night of Passover and to eat only matzo during the week of Passover. The Torah says that it is because the Hebrews left Egypt with such haste that there was no time to allow baked bread to rise; thus, flat bread, matzo, is a reminder of the rapid departure of the Exodus. Other scholars teach that in the time of the Exodus, matzo was commonly baked for the purpose of traveling because it preserved well and was light to carry, suggesting that matzo was baked intentionally for the long journey ahead. Matzo has also been called Lechem Oni (Hebrew: “poor man’s bread”). There is an attendant explanation that matzo serves as a symbol to remind Jews what it is like to be a poor slave and to promote humility, appreciate freedom, and avoid the inflated ego symbolized by leavened bread.”
Therein some of our instructions. Be ready at any moment to escape into freedom from what enslaves us. Be willing to “travel light,” to let go of all the unnecessary “baggage” that would prevent our transition. Be willing, within ourselves, to “promote humility, appreciate freedom,” and, perhaps most importantly, “avoid the inflated ego,” hence the “emptying out” of all that is inflated within us.
Doing all that allows us to be still and trust the transforming agent within us and within the whole of life. On Holy Saturday, I give myself permission and I encourage you to give yourself permission to know that you can, as the Christian prayer book suggests, “Be still and know that God exists.” Be still and know that amazing power and wisdom and love is available, that these can get you through whatever state you are in, and that, miraculously, it sometimes seems, things may turn out to be even better than before.
Easter Sunday can follow Good Friday in our own lives if, and I repeat, if, we allow the Holy Saturday experience, if we give proper occasion and time and practice to a safe and fruitful transition. Perhaps Easter doesn’t happen if we do not observe Holy Saturday. Maybe Holy Saturday is the pivotal point, and we should make more of that holiday than we do of Easter, in our own lives, at any rate.
So, when we are in a transition state, when all appears lost or dead, when our hopes, dreams, plans, relationships, jobs, IRA pension plans, or whatever is precious to us, is lost to us, we can, quite rightly, call this a “Holy” time in our lives, a “bardo,” we can enact, in our own manner, a “Passover” in which we move from one state of being to another newer, richer state than before.
And so, today, Holy Saturday, I think of you as on all holy days. And I hope you know that I do try to be willing to be available to you, as I am able, whenever you are going through your own Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays, as we all eventually do.

May you be blessed, and may all be blessed , on this and all days.

Glenda Taylor
Earthsprings 2009

One comment | Add One

  1. Lisa - 04/18/2009 at 11:34 am

    Thank you Glenda for writing “Holy Saturday”. I found it this morning on our Holy Saturday in the Eastern Orthodox church. I am truly going through a bardo time and I believe God directed me to read this today. I have been trying to make sense of what I’m experiencing and your writing was a big help. “Be still”, that’s the best thing that I can do, yet the hardest. I can better spend this day slowing down and letting myself be transformed by the workings of God. Thank you so much, Love, Lisa

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