Yet, the proper liturgy for Holy Saturday has a valuable character of its own. It captures a spiritually significant pause between the intensity of Good Friday and the joyfulness of Easter Day. The set reading from Job, with its theme of mortality, is a fitting accompaniment for the Gospel, which recounts the removal of Jesus’ body from the shame of the Cross to the silence of the tomb.
The main figure in this part of the story is Joseph of Arimathaea who secures permission to take the body of Jesus down from the cross, and provides a newly cut tomb as its temporary resting place. Joseph is mentioned in this one connection, and in this connection only, by all four Gospels. In John’s version (which the lectionary offers us as an alternative) he is accompanied by Nicodemus. Nicodemus appears three times in the life of Christ, though only in John’s Gospel. Neither Joseph nor Nicodemus was a follower of Christ. Joseph was a member of the Council of Jewish leaders, and Nicodemus an equally well-respected figure. Together they represent another side of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities – thoughtful and faithful people who dissented from his condemnation, but stopped short of professing any allegiance to him. Nicodemus kept his deep interest in Jesus carefully hidden by visiting him under the cover of darkness. Joseph reserved his service, and his gift, to Jesus until after his death. This uncertain position mid-way between the friends and the enemies of Jesus, makes them highly suitable people to figure in the space between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. They were drawn, and moved, by his life and death, but not yet persuaded of his Messiahship.
In thinking about them we are invited to dwell, if only for twenty four hours, on the fact of our mortality. In the light of the Resurrection, we can place our hopes in the transcendence of death offered to us by the saving work of Christ. But on Holy Saturday that moment of revelation has not yet arrived. That is why the liturgy for this day fills the space normally occupied by the Prayers of the People with the beautiful Funeral Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer.
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.
He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow,
and never continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears unto our prayers; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty. O holy and most merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee. Amen.
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