Sacrificial Atonement on the Blessed Sabbath?

Another Look at the Orthodox Celebration of Holy Saturday

 By Deacon Jason Ketz

A great deal of attention has been given in recent decades to the recognition of Holy Saturday as the Blessed Sabbath.[1] However, as central as the Sabbath theme is to our understanding of Holy Saturday, we would be selling ourselves short to think that our liturgy has such singular focus. The symbolism of ritual is universally multifaceted,[2] and I would like to look briefly at a very subtle theme in our celebration of the Lord’s three-day Pascha. A theme that gets relatively little mention in our hymnography, but is pervasive in both the relevant Gospel passages of Holy Friday and Saturday, and in our liturgical actions: sacrifice.

Sacrifice is a key tenet of Judaism, and it has been appropriated in the Christian tradition. The Epistle to the Hebrews offers the most complete theological presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, but how does the letter translate a religious/political execution of a criminal into a cosmic liturgy of atonement, with the priest offering himself as a sacrifice for the people? The difficulties in this argument extend far beyond the stumbling block of the cross (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Sacrifice is a rite within an entire ritual framework, and an element cannot simply be plucked out at random, and said to be observed entirely out of context. It would not make any sense!

Rather than attempting to independently verify the theology of Hebrews, I would instead like to quickly survey our liturgical celebrations and Gospel accounts of the passion, as Hebrews does: within the ritual framework of Jewish temple sacrifice. This requires an awareness of two key concepts. First, that ritual is a constructive process that establishes relationships,[3] and second, that symbols within the ritual are not required to ”˜mean something.’ Symbols are not used to exclusively to communicate explicit ideas, but may indicate something, as if by pointing.[4]

Atonement is most easily understood as a sacrament of reconciliation.[5] As it is presented in Leviticus 16, the high priest enters the holy of holies and makes a sacrificial offering for himself and then for the people of Israel. This sacrificial rite restores Israel to good-standing within the covenant relationship with God. The ritual has a few key components, including the sacrificial offering, the priest who makes the offering, and a space in which the offering is made. Leviticus 16 describes an autonomous and fully functioning system of worship, and all of the components support each other. This symbolic matrix neither requires nor encourages interpretation for the ritual to function, and the symbols indicate more than they explain.

One example of index-symbols in the atonement ritual is blood. Blood is mentioned extensively in the sacrificial practices of temple worship, and it may, or may not mean anything in the rite of atonement (Lev 17:11 notwithstanding). But the blood indicates things, beyond what is expressed in Lev 17:11.[6] The altar is the designated place of interaction between God and man. It is consecrated with a sprinkling of blood (Lev. 8:15ff), and this is repeated with each sacrifice (Lev 1:5; 16:14-15, 18ff). The offerings are sacrificed by priests, who are daubed with blood at their ordination (Lev 8:23ff). So, whatever the blood may communicate, or whatever unique properties blood might have, it indicates a relationship of holiness. People and places authorized to participate in encounters with the divine are marked with blood.

If we take this indexical approach to our Holy Saturday celebrations (including Matins and the Vesperal Liturgy), we are able to move beyond the hymnography, to see a collection of subtle themes arising here and there throughout our Holy Week services. One such theme, that is more clearly indicated than communicated by our Holy Saturday liturgy, is the theme Christ’s passion as sacrificial atonement.

When we first look for symbolic indications of atonement in our celebration of the passion, we are confronted not with a wealth of new symbols, but instead a glaring absence. In particular, there seems to be no altar! The altar is the locus of divine and human interaction, making it required for the sacrificial rite of atonement, but neither Paul nor the Evangelists make a clear case for the altar’s cosmic location. Even St John’s interpretation of Christ’s body as the temple (John 2:21) cannot sustain an extended discussion of the atonement ritual. As we mentioned earlier, the temple altar is indicated by other symbols, so we can allow other symbols to point us toward the symbolic altar in Christ’s passion. Blood is the first logical candidate. But its paucity in the passion accounts (John 19:34 is a noteworthy exception)[7] will require us to look more deeply within the passion accounts for indicators of the temple ritual. Christ’s passion in the Gospel of John is effectively a sacrificial atonement,[8] but as with most of New Testament Scripture (until Hebrews) the symbols are too scarce to support the connection to Leviticus.

The Apostle Paul provides the early connection we are seeking, and we are exposed to his theology through the Epistle on Holy Saturday. The reading, Romans 6:3-11, is significant beyond its easily identified vestigial relationship with baptismal liturgies in the ancient Church.[9] The Apostle directly connects Christ’s death to atonement (particularly in Romans 3:21-26), but he never allegorizes the process.[10] He does, however, provide the church with our point of departure for further symbolic expression, with the ”˜baptismal’ epistle mentioned above. Having established that Christ’s blood provides expiation (Rom 3:25), [11] Paul then connects us to Christ’s death through baptism. And in this passage, we have our best candidate for a symbolic altar for the atonement sacrifice: the tomb. The apostle tells us that through baptism, we are buried with Christ in death (6:4). Indeed, once established, the tomb is an apt location for an altar of cosmic atonement. Christ’s body – the sacrifice – is placed in the tomb, and from the tomb comes the resurrection, God’s response to the sacrifice.

The Gospels, for their general lack of explicit temple-atonement symbolism, do offer one unanimous possibility regarding Christ’s burial. All four evangelists testify that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus in linen for his burial. Of course, linen would be typical of burial rites, but plain linen cloth also makes an unexpected appearance in the atonement rites of Leviticus. Priestly garments are depicted in Exodus 28-29 as incredibly ornate, if Exodus 28-29 are any indication. And yet the Day of Atonement ritual clearly stipulates that the high priest wear only a plain linen garment and turban while making the atonement (Lev 16:4). Only after the atonement sacrifice has been offered is the priest expected to change out of his plain linen garments into the ceremonial vestments of the priesthood (Lev 16:24). The priest is officially indistinguishable (and unprotected from the holiness of God) for the duration of the sacrifice. This may well be a visual representation of the entire atonement rite: while the sacrifice is being made, all of the normal temple activities are suspended, until the covenant is restored through the atonement.[12] Are we to see Christ’s burial garments as the high priest’s clothing on the Day of Atonement? One would hope for better linguistic parallels between Leviticus and the Gospels – a linen robe and turban is not the same as a linen cloth. On the other hand, Christ’s non-descript entry into the tomb and his change of clothing at the completion of the cosmic atonement certainly point in the direction of the priest’s initial and concluding actions of the Levitical atonement ritual.

For all of these indices, the tomb would only be a locus of interaction between God the Father and Christ, were it not for Paul’s belief that human beings participate in God’s plan for salvation. The Apostle incorporates us into the tomb through baptism, as heard in Rom. 6:3-11, on Holy Saturday. Now, the tomb is our location of interaction with our creator. Christ mediates the initial encounter, as sacrifice and as High Priest. And our baptism, which is our birth of water and Spirit (cf John 3:3-8), is an indication of our own ordination as priests, now authorized to enter the tomb ourselves, and seek a life-giving encounter with the Lord.

Once this simple link is forged between Christ’s passion, the tomb and sacrificial atonement, a number of additional symbols emerge in our Holy Saturday celebrations that point us in this direction. The Saturday service includes a change of vestments after the epistle and before the Gospel, which proclaims the resurrection. The placement of the burial shroud in the church makes the church a tomb, and we come on Saturday for Matins (Friday evening) to glorify Christ’s life-giving death. Our icons of the resurrection show Adam and Eve encountering Christ in Hades, and their being raised out of their tombs. And for several centuries the Church has also incorporated iconographic depictions of Christ’s burial on either the aer or the antimension – the cloths which sit respectively above and below the gifts on the Holy Altar as the Eucharist is being prepared. Here again is this unexpressed and unexplained connection between the Eucharist sacrifice and Christ’s body, dead as sacrifice.

Perhaps the most powerful connection to atonement in the midst of our celebration of Christ’s passion, is the Eucharist itself. Holy Saturday is a day we celebrate the Eucharist. We come to church, on that Sabbath that sits temporally between the death and resurrection of Christ, for an encounter with the Lord, through the sacrament of the Eucharist. This very encounter that is experienced liturgically throughout our lives is the one that awaits us each in the reality of our deaths. It is nothing less than the encounter of Lazarus, remembered by the Church only one week prior, when our Lord encounters his friend Lazarus, dead in the tomb, and cries “Lazarus, Come out” (John 11:1-44).

The hymns and liturgical dialogues of the Orthodox Church are powerfully communicative, and ritually significant. But our participation in the liturgy is not dependent on our cognitive understanding of what is being said and done. Thus, from time to time it may prove beneficial to change up the questions we ask about church services. If we suspend our pursuit of “why?” and “what does that mean?” for a moment, we can see connections between our liturgical prayers, our liturgical actions, theology and the Scriptures that defy explanation[13] and yet powerfully influence our liturgical worship of our Lord, and his three-day Pascha.

[1] This theme is already present in the Church’s hymnography (cf. Doxastikon of Lord, I Call… for Holy Saturday, tone 6), dating from the first millennium. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, [“Great and Holy Saturday” reprinted in the Service Book of Holy Saturday (Syosset: OCA, 1986), 3-7], calls the Vesperal Liturgy of Great and Holy Saturday “the liturgical climax of the church.” And Fr. John Behr, [The Mystery of Christ, (Crestwood: SVS, 2006), 109-11 and throughout]. himself crediting St Irenaeus of Lyons, has expanded an insightful parallel between Genesis 1 and John 19, to see in our celebration of Pascha a recap (or even a starting point!) of God’s plan of creation and redemption of the world.

[2] David I. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988), 9-12.

[3] Saul M. Olyan, Rites and Rank: Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult, (Princeton: Princeton Univ Press, 2000), 4.

[4] William K. Gilders, Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2004), 2-8. In understanding symbol, Guilders is drawing upon the work of Olyan and several ritual theorists, including Kertzer, Catherine Bell and Roy Rappaport.

[5] Cf. Jan Willem Van Henten, The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees, (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 156. Van Henten offers an extensive working of another case of non-temple sacrificial atonement: the death of the Maccabean martyrs in 2 (and 4) Maccabees. A more technical definition becomes problematic due to conflicting OT examples, as recognized by Leander Keck, Romans, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005), 109.

[6] Gilders, Blood Ritual, 6-7 and throughout his entire monograph.

[7] In his first epistle, John again mentions blood, in conjunction with water and Spirit, all three of which ”˜flowed’ from Christ at the moment of his death (cf John 19:30, 34). John states that these things witness that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (1 Jn 5:8-9). Unfortunately, this lone mention of blood is not enough to indicate a cosmic altar for Christ’s sacrifice.

[8] Charles A. Gieschen, “The Death of Jesus in the Gospel of John: Atonement for Sin?” Concordia

Theological Quarterly 72 (2008), 245-52; and contra Ruldolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament 2 vols Kendrick Grobel, trans. (Waco: Baylor Univ Press, 2007), 2:54. “The thought of Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin has no place in John”

[9] Schmemann, “Holy Saturday,” 6.

[10] John B Cobb, Jr and David J Lull, Romans, (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 64, point out that Paul is

not textually bound to Lev. 16 for his interpretation. Perhaps, but I suspect that he follows it more closely

than is commonly believed.

[11] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1998), 218-23.

[12] Deborah W. Rooke, “The Day of Atonement as a Ritual of Validation for the High Priest.” In John Day, ed. Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel (New York: T & T Clark, 2007), 355.

[13] Ephraim Radner, Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008) 172-7, points out the weakness ofChristian use of temple symbolism. However, Gilders, 3, in his introduction discusses the advantage to newer approaches to ritual studies that don’t require such rigid one to one links of symbols, ideas, actions, etc. He believes that this better captures the power and polyvalence of the rituals under examination.

Photos of the Matins of Holy Saturday at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC are courtesy of and were taken by Yuri Gripas.