The Importance of Holy Saturday

How can we focus on the Resurrection of Christ if we skip Christ’s descent into Sheol?

By Lijin Hannah Raju

Good Friday and Easter of Holy Week are widely known as two very important days where many faithful Christians attend services at Church. The Crucifixion of our Lord and the Resurrection of our Lord are indeed important. However, there is a disconnection. Christ did not resurrect directly from the Cross. He died on the Cross, descended into Sheol and resurrected from death. We often forget that Christ descended into Sheol which we commemorate on Holy Saturday. We actually remember all our departed loved ones on this day as Christ descended into Sheol to preach the Gospel to all and trampled down death by His death. 

We remember the suffering of Christ from the betrayal kiss of Judas to His last words, “It is finished” (John 19:30So when Jesus had received the sour wine,
He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head,
He gave up His spirit.
). The sorrow of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion is not replaced by joy with His Resurrection. In fact, sorrow is transformed into joy. We cannot understand this transformation without the integral part of Christ’s descent into Sheol. 

There is much beautiful imagery of Christ’s descent into Sheol that we see in poetry as well as in iconography by the Church Fathers. As Jonah was in the belly of the fish, Christ was in the belly of Sheol. As Jonah prayed in the whale, Christ preached the good news of the Gospel in Sheol. As the fish threw up Jonah onto the shore, Christ resurrected from the dead and redeemed Adam and Eve and all of humanity. If you look at the icon above, you can see that Christ is pulling out Adam and Eve while trampling on the doors that were shut out to Adam and Eve at the Garden of Eden. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden had shut the doors of Paradise for all of humanity. It was through the trampling of the doors with Christ’s descent into Sheol, defeating death by His death that the doors of Paradise were opened again. It is this meaningful and powerful incident that we miss out on when we do not partake in Holy Saturday. Our spiritual journey is incomplete without our participation and understanding of Holy Saturday. 

“For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also, not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (1 Peter 3:17-22)

1 Peter 3:17-22 along with Romans 6:3-113 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?
4 Therefore we were buried with Him through
baptism into death, that just as Christ
was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,
even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united together in the
likeness of His death, certainly we also shall
be in the likeness of His resurrection,
6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified
with Him, that the body of sin might be done
away with, that we should no longer be slaves
of sin.
7 For he who has died has been freed from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we
believe that we shall also live with Him,
9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead,
dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him.
10 For the death that He died,
He died to sin once for all;
but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin,
but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
helps us to connect the Death and Burial of Christ with Baptism. Just as St. Paul says in Romans 6:3Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?
, we who were “baptized into Christ were baptized into His death”. When we look at Romans 6:3-11, we see that Baptism is the Cross. What the Cross and Burial is to Christ, Baptism has been to us, even if not in the same respects. For Christ died, was buried in the flesh, and raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. We should also be crucified, buried, and “walk in the newness of life” with Him (Rom 6:4Therefore we were buried with Him through
baptism into death, that just as Christ
was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,
even so we also should walk in newness of life.
). If we have shared in His Death and Burial, then we will be able to share much more in the Resurrection and Life of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

On Holy Saturday, we start with midnight and morning prayers of Holy Saturday as we are still mourning the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, we move into Divine Liturgy. Let me point out some of the differences that we will see in Liturgy on this day. For the Malankara Church, since Christ is buried at the altar, we do not celebrate Divine Liturgy at the tomb of Christ. The Holy Qurbana is the living body and blood of our Lord and since He is dead, while in the tomb, we should not celebrate Holy Qurbana on it. Holy Qurbana is the celebration of our Lord who is alive. Therefore, the priest usually celebrates Qurbana at a side altar, so it is common to see the congregation all gathered to one side of the parish during Qurbana. This enables us to celebrate Qurbana on the Crucified and Resurrected Lord not only a Crucified Lord. As practiced in the Liturgy for Maundy Thursday, when it is time for the Trisagion (Holy art thou O God…), the specific hymn for Holy Saturday will be sung,

Christ Who – Effaced our Death by – Thy Death – Raise to life, the dead and have mercy on us

followed by the hymn, “Praise to Thee, O Lord” (“Naatha, they sthuthiyum…”). We also do not do the intercessory prayers (Quqiliyon) during Qurbana. Instead, it is after the Divine Liturgy that the incense is offered in intercessory prayers for the departed faithful (“Makkalilappan…”). Also, there is no kaimuthu (dismissal blessing), like the rest of Holy Week. These are just a few differences from the regular Divine Liturgy we are all used to. 

Glory to Him who is Living by nature and voluntarily tasted death, and by His power gave the taste of resurrection to the dead lying down in the tombs. Glory to Him who slept among the dead and with His voice, awakened all the dead in Sheol. Glory to that Mighty and Powerful One who killed death and ravaged Sheol and destroyed the evil who killed Adam. By Your grace, may we have the strength to listen to the voice who preached in Sheol and transform our suffering into joy. 

About the author

Lijin Hannah Raju is a young woman in her final year of the Masters of Arts in Theology program at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, NY. She is originally from Dallas, Texas where her parents and two brothers currently reside. Her home parish is St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Dallas, Texas. After seminary, she plans on pursuing her Masters in Social Work so that she can incorporate theology and social work together in order to minister and care for those in and outside the Church.