Holy Saturday is for the Bones

“Do you show your wonders to the dead O Lord?
    Do their spirits rise up and praise you?” – Psalm 88

I recently listened to a podcast by two midwestern Bible scholars that was a 9-part series about Hell. What? Is that not what you do in your spare time? I think I can summarize the whole series for you in six words, “Hell: it’s not what you think.” 

The dozen or so words in the Bible which are translated as “Hell” describe everything from a place of eternal separation from God to a literal trash heap just west of Jerusalem. And most of our notions of Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment come not from the Bible but from Dante’s Inferno and Looney Toons. 

Generally speaking the Old Testament’s understanding of where you go when you die is that you just die. You go down to “the Pit” as Psalm 88 describes it. If anything you go to the place of the dead, Sheol it’s called. It’s not a place of either punishment or bliss, it’s a place of nothing. Death. Non-existence. 

However, there are enough Old Testament passages that point to something more than this that by Jesus’ day there were rumors of a coming resurrection of the dead. One of that rumor’s most exquisite proof texts is Ezekiel 37. 

“The hand of the Lord came upon me,” Ezekiel writes, “and brought me to the middle of a valley full of dry bones. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord, only you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the bones.’” And so Ezekiel prophesied to the bones and, behold, they lived. 

Do you show your wonders to the dead O Lord?
    Do their spirits rise up and praise you?”

Perhaps, suggests Ezekiel, if there is someone who will go prophesy to the bones. 

Most churches don’t have services on Holy Saturday. What happens between Good Friday and the Easter Vigil happens out of our view. It’s not even narrated in the Bible, except for this one conspicuous sentence in 1st Peter. 

Peter writes, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all. In order to bring you to God, He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, preaching to the lost souls in Sheol.” In other words, having died for us, says St. Peter, Jesus then “descended into hell” precisely to go “prophesy to the bones.” 

Psalm 88’s questions, “Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you?” These are our Good Friday and Holy Saturday questions. Countless souls, in death, and while being grieved to death have asked these questions and prayed this prayer. 

Does God rescue those who have gone down to the pit? 

Can these bones live? 

On Holy Saturday we pray “Lord Jesus, prophesy to the bones!” And then, with the ears of faith, we listen for his reply. “I AM.”

This is the promise that can carry us from Friday’s shadows into Sunday’s dawn.

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