Today is a day when we do nothing. For those whose tradition takes them through a detailed re-enactment of the events of Passion Week, the seven days set out in the gospels (especially Mark), this day is striking in its stillness. In Catholic tradition, nothing can be celebrated, the only exception being in the case of the ministry at the moment of death. In the mostly Catholic Philippines, you are traditionally not allowed to go swimming (though a concession has been made for Saturday afternoon) and even television broadcasters limit their output.
All this is in response to the stark silence of the gospel accounts for this day. Mark’s gospel mentions it only in retrospect (‘When the Sabbath was over…’ Mark 16.1). In Matthew, it is the day when the temple guard is despatched to the tomb, but nothing else happens (Matt 27.62–66). Luke explains for the sake of any non-Jewish readers the obligation to rest on the Sabbath, thus accounting for the silent day (Luke 23.56). John also includes a work (‘Jewish’) of explanation, but doesn’t actually tell us what he is explaining (not mentioning the Sabbath; John 19.42).
Like trying to ‘see’ a black hole, we have to infer from this near silence what that day must have meant for them, and we are offered two hints. The first is the mention of ‘door locked, for fear of the Iudaioi‘ (John 20.19), best understood here as ‘Judaeans’ or ‘Jewish leaders’. This dramatic renewal movement, which had gained a following especially in the north, but also had important allies in and around Jerusalem, including amongst the Pharisees, seemed to have been snuffed out. The shepherd had been struck down, and the sheep had been scattered; we might say, the movement had been effectively decapitated. If the leader had gone, then the inner circle would surely be next. The second hint is the sound of disappointment in the voices of those walking—trudging, dragging their feet—along the Emmaus Road in Luke 24.19–21:
Jesus of Nazareth…was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place…
You can almost hear in their words that their faces were ‘downcast’ (Luke 24.17). Their hope had been expressed from the earliest words of Luke’s gospel, in both the Magnificat and the Benedictus, anticipating that this person would, indeed, be the one to fulfil all their hopes. And yet those hopes had been cruelly and publicly dashed in the torture and execution of the one they had come to trust and hope in. (It is worth noting that, though Luke only refers to these two, they are unlikely to have been on their own returning along the road from the festival; you can imagine them gesturing to the others in the pilgrim crowd when asking the ultimately ironic question ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ Luke 24.18)
And what must they all have been thinking on the silent Sabbath, unable to distract themselves from their whirling thoughts by the distraction of activity? How must time have dragged without being able to immerse themselves in busyness? How many times did Peter remember again the crowing of the cockerel that counted down the flimsiness of his resolve and commitment to Jesus, uttered vainly only the evening before? And how did the others reflect on their feeble actions, gripped as they were by fear, leaving only the women and the Beloved Disciple to witness close at hand the suffering and death of Jesus? How often did they rue the fact that they were not there when it counted? (To be fair, the men amongst Jesus’ followers had more to fear; his female followers were hardly going to be seen as a threat or picked out as a target.) Yes, they perhaps had the spark of hope in the later-remembered sayings of Jesus that ‘on the third day, I will be raised’—but these had not yet been fanned into flame by the surprise of the empty tomb.
We do not know and we cannot tell what pain of regret they thought and felt—yet this Holy Saturday of silence resonates with us, so much so that it has been claimed that ‘We live in Holy Saturday’, that this moment most clearly captures the reality of the Christian life. And the reason is that, despite all our hope, we still live with disappointment and fear and failure, at times so much so that it threatens to overwhelm us, and these things sear themselves on our memory.
I can remember the time in my late teens when, after only coming to living faith two or three years earlier, I experienced a sense of spiritual darkness, as if the presence of God that had seemed so tangible at first had departed, only to return very gradually in the following years, and never in quite the same way as at that first flush of faith. I remember the person I travelled with on my gap year abroad telling me in no uncertain terms what a fraud and a failure I was—the week before starting university—not really the thing that you need when embarking on a new stage of life. I remember at the end of my first year there sitting, sobbing, in the window seat of my college room, wondering what on earth I was doing there. I remember the words of my late father at my graduation, having got a 2 (i) in maths: ‘You should have got a first!’ (He was right, but it wasn’t perhaps the moment to hear that.) I remember being told that, because I had been recommended for ordination training two years before starting, and because I had accepted the invitation immediately to study for a PhD, and because there was no national plan so my bishop refused to ordain me, that my recommendation for ordination had expired, and I would need to go through another discernment process. I remember the person who interviewed me asking about my research, and then reporting that I was so enthusiastic about that, he doubted my sense of call to ordination after all. I remember not once, not twice, but three times being blocked from appointment to what seemed, at the time, to be significant roles, possibly illegally (in terms of process) but certainly unfairly. On the first occasion I was made to wait two hours in an adjacent room whilst I was being discussed, and then faced a three-hour drive through a rain-swept night in which the rain on the windscreen seemed to match my tears of frustration and disappointment.
And there are other disappointments to remember as well. Some of the disappointments that come to us seem to come entirely from without, that is, our own decisions do not contribute to what has happened to us. But there are other times when our own faults and failures contribute to the passage of events—yet that does not diminish our sense of disappointment and frustration. Yet I am very aware that any disappointment I have experienced pales in comparison with what others known to me have experienced.
I have not known the loss of a spouse, such as the tragic car accident that affected a former colleague, his young wife being killed as they were making preparations for moving house prior to his ordination. I have not known the premature death of a sibling, as have both a friend through academic circles with whom I have shared rooms at conferences, and the person I will be visiting later today. I have not known the loss of a son, as my brother has, in a tragic motorbike accident. Nor am I afflicted with a life-long, debilitating illness, as another friend is. Knowing this puts my own disappointments into a much larger perspective.
And I am also aware of how, mysteriously, God has used these disappointments to bring something new and life-giving to me and to others through these experiences. Out of my despair at university I heard God’s call to ordination. Out of the disappointment of the first failed job interview I found my preaching and teaching transformed. And I have ended up now in a place which offers opportunities for fruitful ministry. I hesitate easily to apply this to the experience of others, since we all need to make sense of disappointment in our own ways, but I have seen the harsh climate of difficult experience break open the soil of my life and God then being able to plant a seed which, in time, bears fruit—and which could not easily have come any other way.
At the beginning of Lent, the Church Times published a remarkable interview with Kate Bowler, a historian of the prosperity gospel movement in America. (I would cite from the article, but the Church Times website appears to be offline at the moment—perhaps in line with the silence of Holy Saturday!). Her analysis of the megachurches of Joel Osteen and others has acquired a particular poignancy as she was (at the time of the interview) suffering from Stage 4 cancer. You might think that she would be unreservedly critical of the ‘over-realised eschatology’ of such churches, who obliterate real reflection on the suffering of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday in order to focus on the triumph of Easter Sunday alone, and she is. But she is attentive enough to understand the reasons why people need such comfort and encouragement, and she notes that many Reformed churches (to which I would add other traditions as well) have an ‘under-realised eschatology’. Do we never expect God to act, to intervene, to answer prayer?
The reality is that, much as the silence of Holy Saturday connects with some of our experience—and an important part which we must not trivialise, sideline or ignore—this silence does not have the last word. We certainly will have Holy Saturday experiences, but we do not live in that first Holy Saturday, because we know that Easter Sunday followed, something that those first disciples did not then know. This tension between disappointment and hope is captured in Paul’s remarkable words to the Christians in Corinth:
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all–surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4.7–18)
We need to wait during Holy Saturday, recognising the need to grieve in our frustration and disappointment. But we know that there is another day to come, one whose reality already casts its light in amongst the shadows of the present. We do grieve, but not as those without hope.
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