Many years ago, I visited the Church of St. Savior in Chora, a magnificent Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople. The present structure mostly dates to the 11th Century but is built on 4th Century foundations. The church contains priceless and breathtakingly beautiful mosaics and frescoes from the Byzantine period. It is ancient, it is sublime, and my thoughts turn to it on this Holy Saturday.
In what is called the parecclesion, or a side funerary chapel, there appears above the apse a magnificent fresco of what in Greek is called the Anastasis, but in English is known as the Harrowing of Hell. Christ triumphantly bursts open the gates of Hell, which have fallen beneath His feet. He extends His right hand to Adam and His left to Eve, pulling them from their tombs. Behind Adam stands John the Baptist, David, Solomon and other righteous kings. Behind Eve stands Abel and still other righteous who lived before Christ. This fresco has been called “one of the greatest paintings in the world,” “the apogee of Byzantine art.” For us as Christians on this Holy Saturday it says even more.
This painting depicts Christ’s victory. He comes as Savior, even for those who have gone before us, all the righteous back to Adam and Even themselves. The unknown artist has captured a truth in painting, the universal redemption of Christ. Christ comes as judge and redeemer of the world, every part of it, past, present and future.
In an ancient homily for Holy Saturday, preserved in our Catholic Office of Readings, the holy preacher imagines a dialogue between Christ and Adam on that first Holy Saturday. Christ says to Adam, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise. I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead: I am the life of the dead.” Holy Saturday is not some quiet interlude. There is much more to Holy Saturday than an earthly silence.