In college I had the pleasure once of having a Greek Orthodox priest come speak in chapel. Though this was unique and had never been done before, some of the Quaker mystical tradition had developed friendships with mystics of the Greek Persuasion, as well as some who had been working with the Apprentice Institute. If memory serves the man who came was called Father Gregory, and he gave one of the most interesting and controversial homilies to ever echo through Haviland Friends Church. Seeking to correct against the Protestant excess with the Penal Substitution theory of atonement (a Law/Punishment paradigm), this priest told us the gospel story according to Origen’s version of the Ransom Theory (an overcoming Death paradigm). While I an many of my classmates listened in rapt attention to this radically foreign perspective on the gospel story, I admit I had some reservations. But when it comes to the atonement, I think most of the theories are valuable and mostly help us see that the truth of the gospel in a multi-faceted truth.
Father Gregory spoke in some fresh ways about what was going on during this interim time, a mostly silent time in Scripture though it is hinted at what happens during this time in the Apostle’s Creed and writings of the church fathers. In Gregory’s Greek Orthodox view, this was the time Jesus battled death in a spiritual reality beyond the cross. As Jesus went went into the grave it was seen has him being swallowed by death, going down into the belly of the beast so to speak. Spiritually, Jesus descended into the bowels of death just as Adam and Eve had, and when Jesus arrived he found them there. Adam and Eve were trapped in their sin and could not get out, but death could not hold Jesus. According to this view of the gospel what Jesus did was essentially to grab Adam and Eve and burst back out from the belly of death, giving Adam and Eve a path to their freedom and reversing the work of the devil.
While this stretched our protestant lens a great deal in chapel to seemingly speculate so much about how Jesus did this work of reversing the curse, I found it a helpful way to think about Holy Saturday. I do not know what to make of Jesus’ pointing to the sign of Jonah, nor or what to make of 1st Peter’s concept of Jesus. But I do understand that what is signified by them is is more than simply Christ resting in death. What happened during this period is a mystery, but one worth chasing a bit as we celebrate the gospel story at work within us.
A. Katherine Grieb, in her book, “The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness” argues persuasively that as Paul is arguing for Jesus’ work on the cross in light of his role as a New Adam figure, that Paul is borrowing from Jewish Holy War theology the idea of a representative fighting solo for his people, something akin to what David and Goliath agreed to do: they could spare the cost of war by choosing a representative from each side to fight for all. I like how these ideas blend together in reflecting on Holy Saturday, like David at Ziklag, Jesus comes to rescue a people in bondage. As Isaiah pointed to, Jesus came to set the captives free and break the yokes of slavery. He may not have fought an earthly battle but in facing off with Sin and Death the Lord was a warrior who took the fight to the powers and principalities of our darkened world crying out for redemption. Though scripture is silent or even confusing about what was going on on Holy Saturday, I think the case can be made that Jesus kept on fighting and took the fight into the belly of the Beast. Jesus conquered death, undoing the curse of Adam and Even, and leading God’s people to freedom.
Take 10 to 20 minutes in solitude to ponder the victory of Jesus, both on the cross above and in the realms below. At the incarnation God came on an all out rescue mission for our sake, at the cross that rescue took the form of redemption and atonement, and in the grave we find Jesus conquering sin and death. As we await the coming Act of the gospel story–the resurrection, let us not lose the importance of Holy Saturday; where the seeds of our redemption germinated and began to sprout, ready to burst from the soil Resurrection Sunday with unexpected glory and joy.