The Great Sabbath
by Nathan Brown
Sabbath is a gift—a day for many things—but we miss something of Sabbath when we too often fill it with busy-ness. The poignancy of Sabbath is found when it allows for some emptying and emptiness. While celebrating God’s presence, we should also allow ourselves to feel something of His absence, even if only that as waiting “Adventists” we are at the end of another week in which Jesus has not returned. And there is no Sabbath on which this is a more appropriate way to “keep” Sabbath than that in the midst of Easter, remembering the day on which Jesus Himself rested in death.
There is evidence of an annual Christian memorial of Jesus’ death and resurrection from the first century, most of which we know about because of debates among Christians in the second century as to when this already-established practice should be marked on the calendar. As one of the earliest Christian observances, it is hardly surprising that there is a deep and broad treasury of Christian traditions, practices and meaning that surround the annual remembrance of the Jesus’ submission to and defeat of death. Perhaps least known among these are some of the practices and worship on the Sabbath of Easter, known in various traditions as Holy Saturday, Black Saturday or—in the Eastern Orthodox tradition—the Great Sabbath.
The Great Sabbath begins with worship on Friday evening styled as a funeral for Jesus and continues to employ funereal elements throughout the day. The enormity of the death of the Son of God should not be skipped over in our anxiousness to get to the good news of His resurrection.
On this Sabbath, perhaps more than any other, we should allow ourselves to feel the absences and silences of God in our lives, church and worship—and to be able to rest in that. Having been through the worst that His world could throw at Him, beat Him with and torture Him by, Jesus rested in the tomb on that Sabbath, the Creator following the pattern He had set at the making of this world.
In His rejection by His own people, His physical suffering and His death, Jesus experienced and identified with so many of the experiences of what it means to be a broken human being in a fallen world in which God seems to be silent and absent too often and too long: “The cross that is a symbol of defeat before it is a symbol of victory speaks also of the absence of God. . . . Jesus shares with us the darkness of what it is to be without God as well as showing forth the glory of what it is to be with God” (Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth).
Somehow by faith, we can acknowledge and reflect on the darkness in our lives, the pain in our hearts and the questions in our souls. Precisely because of the hope we have, we can mourn what we have lost and how it seems God has let us down. And yet we can also find rest for our hurt, brokenness, burdens and grief in the One who rested on the Great Sabbath (see Matthew 11:28–30).
But, while we wait in the darkness of the Great Sabbath, we know how the story ends. The Great Sabbath ends with a vigil in darkness and silence, but anticipating the new morning and expecting the risen Christ. While Jesus’ resurrection seemed to take even His closest followers by surprise, we come to the story with the assurance—even when we can barely bring ourselves to believe it—that something new and remarkable happened that Easter morning, something that changed the world, becoming the pivot point of history and salvation. Death was and is defeated, and a new kind of life is offered to all humanity.
The vigil ends with exchanging the simple but astounding affirmation that “Christ is risen!”—and after 2000 years, He is risen still! Because of that fact, we know how the story ultimately ends, even while we are still living that story.
One of the scripture readings often used in marking the Great Sabbath is Psalms 118, which includes a prophecy employed to describe Jesus in three of the gospels, Acts and 1 Peter: “The stone rejected by the builders has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous to see. . . . Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever” (Psalms 118:22, 23, 29, NLT).
When we commemorate Easter truly as a memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus—in both its bewildering, tragic darkness and its glorious, overwhelming light—we celebrate and proclaim again that the Lord’s doing is ever marvellous and His love does endure forever. When understood in this way, the Great Sabbath is the most Adventist of seventh days. While memorialising the central event in the salvation story, it begins in disappointment but continues to expect the return of Jesus Himself, together with the resurrection He brings.