The tradition of Christian prayer follows the Judaic practise of counting a day as the period from sunset to sunset. Jesus is killed on the day before the Passover Sabbath, and is laid to rest in haste to avoid violating, the day of rest commanded in the Torah.
'Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.' (Exodus 20:8-10)
Even those closest to Jesus would not have wanted to break the Sabbath rest by continuing the rituals associated with death and mourning. They suspend everyday activity naturally, and simply stop until they can resume what they'd started. This Sabbath is a day of waiting, waiting inertly with all the dark heavy pain of undischarged grief on their hearts, not knowing what will be revealed in the dawning of the third day after Jesus was betrayed and condemned to death.
This day is unlike any other in the year, as the church lives, knowing how the story turns out, yet waiting for what will be revealed, busy with making everything ready to celebrate the coming Day of the Lord. It is a day for spring cleaning places of worship, of preparation for the forty days of celebration to come. Yet, everything is conducted in humble quietness, mindful of what Jesus accomplished by his obedience to death, even on a cross.
One vivid image sheds light upon this day of prayer, threaded through with expressions of penitence and trust - the harrowing of hell.
'After being made alive, he (Jesus) went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits'
(1 Peter 3:19-20)
This passage has long been interpreted as referring to what happened to Jesus after he died, before he made himself known again to Mary Magdalene and the disciples. It appears in that phrase of the creeds which states 'He descended into hell', where 'Hell', refers to the place of the dead - Sheol, in Hebrew thinking. The good news proclaimed by the church is that the work of Jesus goes beyond the boundaries of time, and reaches backwards and forwards in our understanding of history.
The church proclaims that nobody who ever lived is beyond reach of God's generous mercy. Not only is this a day for making peace with the living, but also remembering the dead, those who have gone before us, whose lives may have been less than exemplary, but for good or ill, touched our lives in some way. Through Jesus, all who have looked beyond themselves find their place in God's grace.
There is so much we cannot know about the mystery of God's grace and how it works. This is, in a way, a day of unknowing, in the life of prayer, as we wait for the dawn of a new day. Waiting in darkness and silence is far from comfortable, whether we follow the church's liturgical rhythm of prayer, or simply try to meditate on the mystery of descent into hell. It is however, a training in humble patience, unable to anticipate anything. We can make ready to celebrate, but without being free to celebrate until the time of waiting is over.
This is a position many people encounter as patients undergoing medical procedures, as victims or as the accused in judicial procedures. It can feel very lonely, yet we are not alone. So many like us have gone before, but the promise of hope revealed by the faithfulness of Jesus never departs. In prayer we can only cling to this.
'Wait for the Lord, his day is near; wait for the Lord, be strong take heart' (Psalm 27:14)