Saturday, April 07, 2012

The good news of Holy Saturday

Between the falling curtain of Friday's tragedy and the silence, confusion and laughter of Sunday comes a dramatic pause. Saturday is not merely interval, but closing credits. On Saturday, the future has disappeared from view and the dreams of yesterday dissolve into tears and dread. Cruelly, the world did not end on Friday. The sun has risen once more on a world unchanged, indifferent to the execution of another pitiful Jew. Abandoned to the catastrophe of a failed messianic promise, the disciples are scattered sheep. Pilate's wife tries to banish her nightmares with a stuff drink. Joseph of Arimathéa keeps his head down after his rash act of generosity to a condemned man. The centurion can't shake a lingering unease. Simon of Cyrene digs a few splinters from his shoulder.

The sun shuffles its westerly way and another day departs.

Yet Holy Saturday is what puts the "and" into "cross and resurrection". Without this day of rest, this day of regret and grief, then the story would jump straight from death to new life in a way that may confuse the two. Without Holy Saturday, we may be tempted to think of the resurrection as the secret meaning of the cross, of death being but a door to a better life, of the purpose of life being escape from this vale of tears, of the soul as trapped by the body's prison. We may leap directly from Calvary to the burning hearts within the disciples and conclude that the resurrection is a metaphor for their inner renewal in the face of death, a new liveliness of fellowship and encouragement as they remember the one whose presence and words had touched them so deeply and wonder at the mysterious fact that his death did not erase their appreciation of him after all. Or we may surmise that the departing spirit of Christ took with him the relevance of the man Jesus, left behind his body and earthly identity as a mere cypher, the abandoned vessel through which the divine Logos had communicated with humanity. Without Holy Saturday, Christianity threatens to become some version of Gnosticism.

But Holy Saturday is good news. Its very gloom is an assurance that despair need not be reconciled with decay, that death need not be interpreted as a secret friend, that perseverance is not futile stubbornness but has instead grasped hold of one of the deepest and strongest threads in existence: the faithfulness of God to his creation. It is a dark and dreary day, not to be prematurely disturbed by rumours of an as yet incomplete renewal.

So do not banish the doom from this day, for it is what holds open the space between cross and resurrection, gives the momentary pause that lets us distinguish the two, a holy hiatus in which despair is at home and hope impossible.

Only on a Holy Saturday can the God of impossible possibilities be properly worshipped.


byron smith said...

Phil Whittall: Not every day is a day of victory.

Anonymous said...

Suppose the authorities had cremated Jesus; how would your religion have gotten around that?

byron smith said...

It's an interesting question. The Roman authorities did precisely that to Christians who claimed to hope in resurrection. Augustine discussed this in Book 22 of City of God, concluding that God's creative power is required to resurrect any dead body, no matter how deformed or destroyed it is. Resurrection is not limited to those whose body remains more or less intact but God is able to gather together or refashion whatever scattered parts have been destroyed.

Indeed, the question becomes only more interesting once we discovered that the individual atoms that compromise our bodies are changing all the time. So bodily identity is not merely a question of keeping the "same" stuff. It is quite likely that are atoms in my body that were once in hundreds or thousands of other bodies. It is not the "bits" that belong to me. As C. S. Lewis put it, our bodily identity is like the curve of a waterfall: present, yet only in that it is constantly changing and its constituent parts are changing.

Ian Powell said...

Hi Byron, I often have felt we live sort of, on Easter Saturday. We see the horrors of evil triumphing again and again, of God seemingly defeated, His heroes failing so shamefully - Surely there can be no God when men like Jesus die so horribly.
Then there is our day - Saturday - but we have promises "I am going up to Jerusalem ..will be crucified ... but on third day..." But who can believe that? But the question should be "can i believe Him". Haunted by horror, barley able to believe good will come. Troubled, much more than needs be, if only we could see the promise.
But Sunday will come
Then i chatted with Tim Patrick, and he told me Easter Saturday used to be a bigger deal with Christians and there is even a book of Easter Saturday theology.
Anyhow - thanks for the post
ian powell

byron smith said...

Ian (very late reply!) - Yes, Holy Saturday is indeed (still) a significant part of more liturgical traditions, with Orthodox and RC Christians often holding a vigil late into the evening. Hans Urs von Balthasar in particular has written some very influential reflections on the day. Highly recommended if you get a chance to get your hands on it.