On the Saturday before Easter… nothing happened.
Okay, I’m over-exaggerating. Something happened. But in one sense, nothing happened, because the Saturday before Easter was the Sabbath. Just in case we might not put two and two together on this point, Luke 23:56 reminds us: “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” And the commandment was this: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exod 20:8).
Most Christians are aware of this second of the ten commandments, but few of us follow it as strictly as observant Jews do. Let’s be real: few of us Christians observe the Sabbath intentionally at all. We might try to work a little less and rest a little more, but it’s often a low-commitment thing where if the laundry or the paperwork has piled up, hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.
But there’s nothing you gotta do on the Sabbath if you’re an observant Jew. A few years ago I read Joe Lieberman’s book on Sabbath, and I was amazed at what he doesn’t do on Saturday. This is a former US Senator who – from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday – didn’t go to fundraisers, didn’t drive a car, didn’t work at all. I’m far less important than a US Senator and I’ll confess to you, I too often give into the temptation to “work” on the Sabbath because it seems like something that just can’t wait.
An observant Jew keeps the Sabbath holy. In Exodus 31:14 the punishment for un-holying the Sabbath is death. Although I’ve never met a Jew followed through on the letter of that law, this shows you the seriousness of the deal – a seriousness that was taken even more seriously in Jesus’ day.
The Torah (first five books of the Bible) gets pretty specific about how you keep a Sabbath holy. No making fires (Exod 35:3). No gathering sticks (Num 15:32). No work at all – for you, or your kids, or your employees (well, it says “slaves”), or your animals, or even someone who just wanders through your place (Deut 5:14). No work for no one, no way no how!
So you can how, on the Saturday before Easter… nothing happened.
King David’s city is quiet. No one buying in the market, no one building in the city. Nothing is happening.
But in the disciples’ minds – there has to be plenty happening there.
The disciples – and all of Jesus’ followers – have just witnessed the man they believed to be the Messiah die on the cross. They don’t know what’s about to happen tomorrow. Yes, Jesus predicted his death and resurrection to them three times (Mark 8:31-33, Mark 9:30-32, Mark 10:32-34), but all three times they responded inappropriately with objections, a lack of understanding, fear, and/or requests for promotion. They didn’t get it – and the fact that women show up at the tomb to anoint the body shows that they expected very much to find a body to anoint. They thought their savior was dead in the permanent way that people are usually dead, and a dead savior isn’t much of a savior at all.
So imagine the disciples on the Saturday before Easter. Do you know what that would feel like?
It’d feel like the morning after your born, bred, and one-day dead favorite team loses to its terrible rival. Waking up and knowing you’re facing a world that isn’t as it should be, a world where the bad guys win and they’ll rub it in without mercy as soon as you get to work. It’s like that, but on a cosmic level, as though the universe’s home town team just lost to its greatest rival and when they were defeated, so was all hope and goodness in the world.
That’s the place the disciples are in on the Saturday before Easter.
Meanwhile… where is Jesus?
There has been debate and wonder on this point probably since the beginning, and the Apostles’ Creed is a good reflection of that. If you have a United Methodist hymnal with you (why wouldn’t you?) you can open up to #881, the version of the Apostles’ Creed that I grew up reciting. But take a look at #882: another Apostles’ Creed, with one line inserted:
“he descended to the dead.”
Maybe this isn’t so shocking to you. You’re thinking, “oh yeah, of course, Jesus cruised down to the dead to save them before he resurrected.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “What in the hey who? I never heard about this.”
Those reactions would (loosely) represent the mixed reactions the church universal has had on this subject.
The earliest instance of the Apostles’ Creed comes from 337 A.D. and doesn’t include the line about Jesus descending. It starts popping up in various versions of the creed we still have until it’s eventually officially incorporated by the Latin church in 750 A.D. John Wesley, in forming the American Methodist church, intentionally removed an article that read, “As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” By 1792 this “descending to the dead” language was dropped from American Methodist worship liturgy altogether. In the 20th century it resurfaced, as relations between Protestants and Catholics improved and we returned to some of the traditions of the early church.
So did Jesus “descend to the dead”?
There’s some Scriptural evidence. 1 Peter makes a couple interesting comments; Jesus preached to the “spirits in prison” who formerly disobeyed (3:19-20), and the gospel was “proclaimed even to the dead” (4:6). This may seems like an obvious reference to Jesus’ descending, but folks as far back as Augustine (354 – 430 AD) had questions about these texts. So we’re left to wonder for ourselves: on the Saturday before Easter – the Saturday after his terrible crucifixion – did Jesus Christ minister to those already dead who needed to hear the gospel?
I won’t claim to know the mysteries of how God works, but I do think that God’s grace has been somehow offered to everyone – those who lived before, during, and after the life of Jesus Christ. And I also think that God keeps working even when we are at rest.
A few years ago I became very interested in Sabbath, which is why I read Lieberman’s book. (I probably became interested in it because I knew I was not really keeping it.) I read several books, and in one – which, unfortunately, I cannot remember to credit – a reason for keeping Sabbath was stated like this:
Do you think you’re so important that you have to keep working all the time? And don’t you know that – because of God – the world keeps turning even without you pushing it? God is working, and God’s work is more important than yours. Set aside a day to acknowledge that.
See, Sabbath – as I understand it – is not a day off; it’s a day made holy by not working. But just because I am not working doesn’t mean that work isn’t being done.
So on the Saturday before Easter, perhaps most of Jerusalem wasn’t working and the disciples were worrying but not working, but maybe Jesus Christ was still at work, still expanding the boundaries of the kingdom of God to include even the deepest depths of the afterlife.
Here’s where I notice Joseph of Arimathea.
Joseph is remembered for going to Pilate and asking for Jesus’ body, even though he was a (dissenting) member of the Jewish council. Luke also tells us an important detail about Joseph of Armathea.
“he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (23:51).
And notice that he is doing this expectant waiting even after Jesus Christ has died. It seems that, on the Saturday before Easter, Joseph wasn’t doing absolutely nothing, and he wasn’t wallowing in defeat, he was expectantly waiting for the kingdom of God.
We know the end of the story so we know that Joseph is doing exactly the right thing. But in the moment, this probably took a great deal of faith – to continue to expect the kingdom of God to show up even after its king has been crucified.
This is our job still today.
We live in a post-resurrection world where we know that Jesus didn’t stay dead – he is very much alive. He also promised to come back again. We hear that in the second version of the Apostles’ Creed as well: he “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” We are waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.
But it’s hard work to expectantly wait. It means we have to be on the edge of our seats, working hard, loving God and loving our neighbors as Jesus told us to, expecting that he might come back at any moment. But we must also be patient, understanding that Jesus might also not come back for another 2,000 years, trusting that Jesus will return when it is exactly the right time for Jesus to return. And we must always have hope – a hope that is not deterred by wars that persist or political systems that disappoint or even a dead body in a tomb.
On the Saturday before Easter Joseph of Arimathea was expectantly waiting. On this Sunday before Easter – and every day – may we do the same. Our call is not to do nothing. Our call is not to be depressed and worried over what is or is not happening in the world. Our call is to be ready and waiting, looking toward God’s kingdom.
To read more about “descending to the dead” and the Apostles’ Creed:
- UMC.org: Did Jesus Descend into Hell or to the Dead?
- Christianity Today: Was the phrase “he descended into hell” always part of the Apostles’ Creed, or was it introduced later? And how have Christians interpreted it over time?