Holy Saturday

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


  • Job 14:1-14 & Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16
  • 1 Peter 4:1-8
  • Matthew 27:57-66


By definition, the traditions at the centre of Holy Saturday are not elements from the inventory of historical Jesus materials. However, the idea that Jesus in some sense raided Hell (the traditional "harrowing of Hades") is perhaps an early Christian way of expressing the resurrection belief within classic Jewish terms.

Crossan discusses the "Harrowing of Hell" briefly [Historical Jesus, 387-89] as part of his treatment of the death and burial traditions.

He notes that the harrowing of Hades was a major theological issue in early Jewish Christianity since it was "in Sheol, Hades, or Hell, that the souls of holy and righteous, persecuted and martyred Jews awaited their final and promised deliverance." In the account of Jesus' suffering, his death was necessary both as an historical fact that could not be avoided and as a theological device to allow Jesus to enter the house of "those that slept," the dead.

While barely mentioned in the NT and soon marginalized as an embarrassment to developing classical theology, the harrowing of hell remains an important theme in Eastern iconography. It also survives as the brief statement within the Creed: "he descended into Hell."

Crossan suggests four reasons for this theological theme being pushed to boundaries of Christian belief:

1. It was an intensely Jewish theme, and the Christians were increasingly non-Jewish in character.

2. It was intensely mythological, and involved three related motifs: "a deception in which the demons were allowed to crucify Jesus not knowing who he was; a descent that was the actual reason for his death and burial; and a despoiling whereby Jesus, as Son of God broke open the prison of Hell and released both himself and all the righteous who had preceded him there."
3. It created many theological problems as Christianity developed: was repentance required of them? were they baptized? etc

4. If Jesus was manifested to the dead and led them in triumph directly to heaven how was it possible for him also to be manifested to the apostles between resurrection and ascension? What of their mandate from the risen Jesus? Crossan notes how the tradition sought to resolve that dilemma in the Shepherd of Hermes, Similitude 9.

First Reading: Job 14:1-14

The Jewish Publication Society translation of this passage from Job brings out the keys themes that make this text appropriate for Holy Saturday. Notice especially the idea of being hidden in Sheol until the time of God's wrath has passed:

Man born of woman is short-lived and sated with trouble. He blossoms like a flower and withers; He vanishes like a shadow and does not endure. Do You fix Your gaze on such a one? Will You go to law with me? Who can produce a clean thing out of an unclean one? No one! His days are determined; You know the number of his months; You have set him limits that he cannot pass. Turn away from him, that he may be at ease Until, like a hireling, he finishes out his day.
There is hope for a tree; If it is cut down it will renew itself; Its shoots will not cease. If its roots are old in the earth, And its stump dies in the ground, At the scent of water it will bud And produce branches like a sapling. But mortals languish and die; Man expires; where is he? The waters of the sea fail, And the river dries up and is parched. So man lies down never to rise; He will awake only when the heavens are no more, Only then be aroused from his sleep. O that You would hide me in Sheol, Conceal me until Your anger passes, Set me a fixed time to attend to me. If a man dies, can he live again? All the time of my service I wait Until my replacement comes. (Job 14:1–14 JPS)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 4:1-8

The key element of this text that accounts for its selection in today's lectionary is found in v6 (in bold):

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God. You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme. But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does. The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. (1Peter 4:1–8 NRSV)

Another famous NT passage reflecting this belief in Jesus' activity among the departed between Good Friday and Easter is to be found in 1 Peter 3:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.(1Peter 3:18–22 NRSV)

Gospel: Matthew 27:57-66

The Gospel passage for this day is the account of the burial in Matthew 27:

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen clothand laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilateand said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. (Matthew 27:57–66 NRSV)

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: