In many ways, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton lived a lifelong Holy Saturday. She saw many of her family members die young — from her mother in her childhood to her husband and her own children — and then joined them in death at the age of 46.
Only Easter hope can sustain a soul through such a long trudge through the Valley of Death, and that is what St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had.
Holy Saturday is a mysterious day in the Catholic Church. There is no Mass, except for the Easter Vigil that night. The Liturgy of the Hours tries to make some sense of the great absence of Jesus Christ on the day when his tomb is sealed tight and his tabernacles are open and empty.
The first Holy Saturday theme that loomed large in Elizabeth’s life is the rest of God.
The Office of Readings on Holy Saturday morning includes a passage from the letter to the Hebrews. “And God rested from all his work on the seventh day,” it says, and then it mentions the terrible Old Testament condemnation of unrepentant sinners: “They shall never enter into my rest.”
But for the People of God, Hebrews promises, “He who enters into God’s rest, rests from his own work as God did from his.”
This is the rest that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton hoped would come to her family members who had passed away. This is made explicit in the heartbreakingly straightforward account by her assistant, Sister Rose White, of Mother Seton’s sister-in-law Cecilia Seton’s death after Holy Week.
“Holy Week began, and on Wednesday the Rev. Superior said Mass for us, consumed all the Sacred Hosts in the ciborium, and told us we would have to come to the Mountain for Mass and Communion, so we set out fasting on Holy Thursday,” she wrote. “In the evening we returned, and went next morning — Good Friday — fasting, returned in the evening, and returned next morning —Holy Saturday — to Communion at High Mass.”
The liturgy is the “rest” that comes amidst the life of a busy religious in Holy Week. But into that rest, news intruded.
“Received news that Sister Cecilia was no more; she died on the 28th,” Sister Rose went on. “On the 29th after High Mass had been celebrated — the corpse present — it was placed in the carriage and Mother and Susan [Clossy] accompanied the body to the Valley.”
It wasn’t the last time Mother Seton would go to that Valley.
A second theme in the office of Holy Saturday that resounds in her life is the “new Passover” — the Lamb of God we receive in communion.
“Realize that you were delivered,” says St. Peter in the reading at Evening Prayer, “not by any diminishable sum of silver or gold, but by Christ’s blood beyond price: the blood of a spotless, unblemished lamb chosen before the world’s foundation and revealed for your sake in these last days.”
Elizabeth’s encounter with the Eucharist, the New Covenant in the blood of the Lamb of God, transformed her life. She described what it was like to experience Holy Week as a Catholic for the first time.
“You would not believe how the Holy Week puzzled me,” she wrote, “the other hours of the office having no book to explain or lead I was quite at a loss, but made it up with that only thought, My God is here, he sees me, every sigh and desire is before him, and so I would close my eyes and say the dear litany of JESUS or some of the psalms, and most that lovely hymn to the Blessed Sacrament ‘faith for all defects supplies, and sense is lost in mystery’ here the Faithful rest secure.”
Lost in the office, she finds herself in communion with the Lamb of God, adding “Easter COMMUNION now — in my green pastures amidst the refreshing waters for which I thirsted truly.”
“I have a long life of sins to expiate and since I hope always to find the morning Mass in America,” she continues. “Happen now what will, I rest with GOD — the tabernacle and Communion — so now I can pass the Valley of Death itself.”
And that brings us to the third, and greatest, theme of Holy Saturday for the Church, one very present to St. Elizabeth Ann: judgment.
Holy Saturday in the Church’s Office of Readings commemorates Jesus’s descent into hell, which we remember each time we say the Apostles’ Creed. The reading from the divine office is an “ancient homily on Holy Saturday.”
But the reading doesn’t dwell on the fate of the damned, but on the victory of the saved.
“Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness,” it says. “God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.”
The homily describes the words of Jesus to Adam.
“I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. … For your sake, I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave,” Jesus says. “For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed … in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.”
In the homily, the crucifixion on Holy Saturday has already become for Jesus not a sign of the wickedness of sin or the devil’s hour, but as the ultimate sign of Christ’s sympathy and love for sinners.
This is how Elizabeth came to see the crucifix. She told her spiritual director Fr Simon Bruté in 1815 that she needed “three or four dozen” more crucifixes so that she could place them in the arms of sisters who were dead and buried.
“I hope at least in the great rising we will each be able to lay hold of our crucifix that we may hold it up for defense,” she says. “It was a shame that we have so few in the house that we cannot allow a poor Sister in her coffin that last possession.”
Then she looked to judgment day, and concluded by telling the priest, “Your act of charity too will appear when ‘the elements will be melting.’ Our God — when will I be good and look at Death and Judgment as I ought? Pray for that fear for your poor Mother!”
May we experience Holy Saturday with her selfsame faith and hope. Mother Seton, pray for us!
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image Credit: Giotto di Bondone – Descent into Limbo; Wikicommons