This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace”
Each morning many Anglicans join together to pray the morning office together, continuing the tradition started by the first monks in these lands, praying for themselves, the communities in which they find themselves, the Church and the world. And every morning, we say or sing a canticle, the Benedictus, sung by Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel.
It is an odd canticle, but as I have been training I have fallen more and more deeply in love with it. It is a canticle rich in the praises of God, calling to remembrance God’s good promises to his people from the earliest days, and charting their fulfilment in Jesus.
And it is an odd canticle to have on Holy Saturday. This is the day between the commemoration of Christ’s passion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The Church is in mourning. Christ lies in the tomb. Still. Silent. The altars are stripped of their ornaments and hangings, as the Church lies waiting.
Or does it? I suggest that the Benedictus at the morning office reminds us that God is far from dormant when Jesus is in the tomb. Already on the cross, Christ has been enthroned. Soon he will rise from the dead and ascend to be seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. And now, this Holy Saturday, he is hallowing the grave for us, actively and powerfully, preparing it for us as a place, not of fear, but of joy and hope.
The Benedictus begins with the praises of God, and the remembrance that God has “raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” (2). Jesus has been enthroned in glory, just by his mere presence in the world, his coming into the world. From the moment of Christ’s incarnation in Mary’s womb we can truly say that ‘God is with us’, Immanuel. And on this Holy Saturday, we remember that God is still with us. From the womb of his mother, through his ministry, to the cross, through the grave and into glory… Christ is with us.
And all this is part of God’s eternal plan. For God’s plan is to “come to his people and set them free” (1). Through the prophets (3), the covenant (4), and God’s promises to Abraham (5), God has always and at all times been working to make his people “free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life” (6).
The cross does not stop God’s work. There is no pause. As Jesus lies in the tomb, God remains what he has always been and shall always be. Active. Continuing to carry out his one great work of creation, redemption and recreation, spanning all time and space. Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is going on.
So what is going on?
1Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, •
who has come to his people and set them free.
2He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, •
born of the house of his servant David.
3Through his holy prophets God promised of old •
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,
4To show mercy to our ancestors, •
and to remember his holy covenant.
5This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: •
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
6Free to worship him without fear, •
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
7And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, •
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
8To give his people knowledge of salvation •
by the forgiveness of all their sins.
9In the tender compassion of our God •
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
10To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, •
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
In the Benedictus, Zechariah acknowledges that his son John will be a “prophet of the most high” (7), but his role will only be to “go before the Lord to prepare his way” (7), giving “his people knowledge of salvation” (8) not wrought by himself, but by God. John will not himself forgive sins, but will announce what God is about to do (8).
And here, the Benedictus trawls Isaiah for some of the most beautiful and effective imagery. Christ, the light coming into the world (John 1), is here “the dawn from on high” which “shall break upon us” (9). And now, remember Isaiah 9: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light has shined.”
Well, according to the Benedictus, God’s work in Christ is “to shine on those who dwell in darkness” (9), but not only that. On Holy Saturday, we do well to remember that God also shines on those who dwell “in the shadow of death” (9). From the tomb, as a corpse, the Christ is still shining. From the tomb, Christ’s light hallows the grave and opens up for us the gate of glory.
As Christians, we confess that the grave is not a thing of shame, or fear, or terror. For it is not the end. We believe that in Christ we will be raised. We believe that at our deaths Christ’s light, far from being extinguished, is visible most clearly. For we die not in despair, but in hope and joy. Our grave is not our end. It is the beginning of a new life in Christ. And after a while, we shall be raised, and see him as he comes again, to establish his kingdom of justice, everywhere and for eternity.
This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (10).