The Desolation of Holy Saturday (Matthew 27:57-66)

Once, long ago, I lay curled up on my bed feeling hopeless and defeated and like every positive future had withered and died. I don’t talk about this often – this may even be the first time – and although the passage of time has taken away the feelings, I still remember the cloying numbness, the claustrophobic fog of depression.

That time passed, praise God, but the feelings return at times; many years later, weeks before going on holiday, I woke with the conviction that, if I went to New York I’d die. It was a lie, of course, a falsehood generated from who knows where. And I went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty and a busker who looked like Hendrix tuning his guitar but never actually playing. I went to New York, because sometimes simply doing something good is a victory.

I won’t say I’m free of all this; it manifests differently now, I take medication and I get through it. And that’s why I often talk about the sort of faith that hangs over a cliff by its fingernails, because anyone who tells you that faith is pain free, that belief is a one way ticket to Big Rock Candy Mountain is trying to sell you something, or maybe just trying to cast their own spell to ward off troubles.

Holy Saturday sits at the heart of Easter weekend, an awkward heartbreak innoculating us against cheap triumphalism. There’s a season for everything, and Holy Saturday is a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to lay flowers at a graveside. It’s a time to recognise trauma (let’s not forget Mary, who saw her son torn apart by scourges and nails), a time to cry out “This is wrong” and “That shouldn’t have happened” and “Never again”.

This is a time to acknowledge, in the silence, that the world isn’t as it should be, that the future is frightening, that oppression and persecution are real, that things are broken. This is not a time to pretend that pain isn’t a present reality, that troubles are simply the result of faithlessness. Your pain is real. But while this may sound naive and impossible, it’s not the end of the story.

Because Holy Saturday isn’t a nihilistic full stop. It’s part of something bigger, of which pain is a part but so’s hope. That spluttering candle glimmer may be faint but it’s there, the light at the end of a narrow tunnel. It’s Saturday, as the preacher might have said, but Sunday’s coming.

We have to hold on to a vision of hope, all of us, because even if we’re not going through our own dark night of the soul, we can stand in solidarity with those who are, we can weep and march and sit and pray and stand with others. There are too many paid-off guards peddling fake news and weaponised visions, and so we need Holy Saturday to remind us that our own pain and history and honesty can be a beacon, so many Marys in the garden who’ve seen the stone rolled away.

Today we sit and mourn, and while we may still be doing that come the dawn, we’ve made it through the day, and the sun still rises.

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Stations: Burial (Holy Saturday) – John 19:38-42

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The crucifixion is over; the crowds have gone, the soldiers walk away to clean bloodstained weapons and armour. In the silence and stillness of death Jesus hangs, awaiting the final indignity; he’s probably due to be thrown into a mass grave with the two bandits on either side of him, erased and forgotten as he rots in a pit, no space for followers to mourn and be inspired. The spectacle is over, its job done. Its brutality needs to be remembered but not its victims. That’s how these things work.

We still find mass graves today, in Iraq, in Syria, in Mexico, in Ireland. The discarded victims of turf wars and extremism, abandonment and fundamentalists lie dumped like so much rubbish, the final crime committed against each of them. We might know their names if we hunt through the bones enough. Industrial cruelty wants its crimes and its victims to crumble quietly into dust and disappear in the wind.

The burial of Jesus is an attempt to spare him that fate, an extravagance he can be afforded in death if not in life. So Joseph gives up his tomb and Nicodemus gives up his cash and they give Jesus a burial, respect, dignity. These things are important; they preserve the humanity of those who died, their identity, as well as that of those left behind. This is a moment of mercy and grace, perhaps a moment in which, even in the silence, hope starts to break through.

But it’s Saturday and Sunday’s still to come, and so Joseph’s tomb is a place of mourning and remembrance and tears. We can pause here for a while as we remember the pain and loss of Good Friday, as we put aside denial and embrace the weeping, as we get sad and get angry about suffering and bereavement and death. There’s nothing wrong with this.

But keep an eye on the tomb. Something’s about to happen there. Over on the horizon, the sun’s about to rise.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Reclaiming Easter 3: Holy Saturday

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(This is one post in four parts… Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.)

Part of reclaiming Easter, of following Jesus, of crucifying the sins of Christendom, is honesty.

Honesty about what’s going on in our lives, honesty about our weakness (and our strength), honesty about our failings (and our triumphs), honesty about where we stand with Jesus and his teachings. You can’t lie to the omniscient, so let’s imagine that’s a feature, not a bug.

Holy Saturday is a great place to start this. You’ve got to be honest on Holy Saturday. Liturgically, Jesus is in the tomb, Sunday hasn’t got here yet, we’re sitting with the grief and doubt and pain of Good Friday and sunrise over the garden seems so far away.

There are many people sitting in our congregations who have seen the light of Sunday, but right now it seems like Saturday. They’re suffering bereavement. They’re suffering depression. Their addictions or their debt or their stress is overwhelming. She’s punched on a regular basis but people are trying to keep them together. He’s putting on a brave face but he can see how easy it would be to start the car engine but not open the garage door. The bills keep piling up. The cancer is aggressive.

There is hope. Of course there is, we have to believe that Sunday’s coming. But sometimes starting with Sunday just reduces everything to platitudes. Sometimes it’s a disservice to do anything but sit with the grief and the pain for a while, to acknowledge it and cry out to God and walk with people in their suffering.

Job’s friends, in the midst of catastrophe, rock up with ‘answers’ and make the whole thing worse. It’s the honesty that leads to healing. There are times when we need to check our privilege, throw away the sanctified self-help books and be honest about those agonising pauses when it feels like Jesus is still in the tomb. We reclaim Easter when we’re honest about the pain rather than pretending it’s all chocolate and bunnies.

It’s a dead end to stay with Saturday though. There is hope. There is a future. And when we’re weeping in the graveyard, we might just hear a familiar whispered voice behind us….

(Continued tomorrow.)

Holy Saturday 2014: Desolation

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It’s quiet.

The chaos and horror of Good Friday are over; Jesus is buried in a borrowed tomb and the mourning now begins. Those who had gathered around the cross return to their homes wracked with tears and grief and trauma. It’s a Sabbath – no opportunity to distract themselves with work, just space to weep and to wonder where they go from here.

Traditionally Holy Saturday is a time of waiting, but we’re only waiting if we know what’s coming next. After all, Easter Sunday casts a long, bright shadow, a source of hope born from knowing how the story ends. But what about those who lacked the benefit of hindsight? To them, Holy Saturday must have been less of a pause and more of an end.

Something has to die before there can be a resurrection. But death feels so final, and if you’d seen the broken and bloody body of Jesus taken down from the cross, there may have been no question that death was permanent. To John or Mary or Peter, hope must have felt far away, absent even forever.

Maybe we need this time. Maybe there’s a reason that Jesus came back from the dead on Sunday rather than Saturday. Maybe there needs to be a time of hopelessness built into our calendars to provide some sort of solidarity with all those who struggle to see a tomorrow. Even if we know what happens in the morning it’s still easier to relate to Saturday rather than Sunday.

That’s not to deny the reality of the resurrection, but Holy Saturday gives us space to examine the places where death and grief and absence remain a present reality. Sunday is coming, yes, but after that faith is often an ongoing series of smaller resurrections. We have to work through doubt and despair and abandonment because they’re present realities in a fallen world.

So maybe the quiet of Holy Saturday gives us an opportunity to confront our doubts and fears, to be honest with ourselves in the quiet spaces before tomorrow’s celebrations. Maybe it’s a space of grace given to us to gather our thoughts and prayers, no matter how raw and primal they are, and take take them to the entrance of the the empty tomb, awaiting the dawn, awaiting resurrection.