holy saturday

You wouldn’t expect the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection to be sunny and windy, full of spring and allergens and life, but here we are.  Regardless of the weather, this day and its conceptual meanings has always been really important to me, capturing imagination and emotional interest.

This time last year, I was in Luxembourg with Hannah and Jessie, about to head back to Oxford and unable to get T.S. Eliot out of my head. What I saw then as a potential thesis turned out to be something deeper, a lifelong obsession with the space that we’re occupying right now: the space between death and resurrection.

Every year, I feel like we overlook this day. While our theological focus is (rightly) fixed on the crucifixion of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, there are no services for Holy Saturday (I had to look up that name because I’d never heard it). There’s a reason for this: today is the day that we practice waiting.

I can’t imagine what today would have been for Jesus’ disciples: the man that you’ve followed for three years, that you knew was the anointed one, that you thought would free you from Roman rule, has just been put to death by that very regime. For the disciples, it was a day of fear, a day of doubt, and a day of despair. I’m reminded of Hans Holbein’s painting of Christ in the tomb:

holbein-christ
It struck Dostoevsky enough for him to include it in The Idiot, and looking at the painting brought him to the brink of an epileptic seizure. When he spoke to his wife about it, he said, “A painting like that can make you lose your faith.” With good reason: seeing Jesus in the tomb, beginning to decay with a thin form and discolored extremities, lets us know just how much we need the resurrection. This is the darkest moment, the nadir of kenosis (emptying out); it is also the most essential moment, when human incarnation meets divine power. Everything – everything – hinges on the fulfilment of the resurrection.

This isn’t just an important lesson for a single day, either.  We live, right now, in that vast space between our own death and resurrection as we continue to wait for the return of our resurrected Lord. We struggle with fear, and with doubt; but we know that, because of Christ, we refuse to despair.

I’ve talked about Eliot’s Waste Land before on here, and a lot of people look at this poem as a hopeless picture of a lost and broken generation.  When I read it, though, I see the same space we’ve been talking about: a land yearning for restoration – for the Fisher King to be restored by the Holy Grail, which holds, unsurprisingly, the blood of Christ. Last year, I was having a lot of doubts about the nature of God. Did he really love me? Was he really good and just, strong and saving? And it sounds so strange to say this, but Phlebas brought me back.

I reread part four of The Waste Land, which has always been my favorite:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

This may not seem like the most hopeful passage, but it gave me hope again. Phlebas hasn’t been left for dead. As he sits in his watery tomb, the current comes. Something new swirls around him – a sea-change, something that will alter everything. A resurrection.  His Death by Water is a baptism.

After the torch-light red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

The waste land captures this Saturday perfectly, for the disciples and for us. The space of this world is corrosive. We are surrounded by death – it’s the trajectory of everything in this fallen world, and without Christ, it would be ours, too. But we just have to fix our eyes on him and wait.

This is why this space matters.  We’re not good at waiting. We want things immediately – Christ’s return, or God’s answer for the pressing questions of our lives. This is the space I’ve found myself in right now, as my friends’ future plans roll in in waves and I continue to be suspended – like Phlebas, it seems. I don’t know where I’ll be this summer, or next year, or the year after that. I don’t know what I’ll be doing. Like Elijah did in 1 Kings 19 (thanks, co-leader Matt!), I’m trying to listen for the voice of God past the winds, the earthquakes, and the fires – I’m trying to hear him in the gentle whispers that come into my life. And I’m trying to serve him, not my own ideas of success or the world’s ideas.

I’ll leave you with one last Eliot quote, this one from “East Coker” (my favorite of the Four Quartets).

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Find yourself here, in the middle way, between death and resurrection – and learn to find peace with God in the waiting.

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a handful of words from good friday

There’s this feeling that steals over me sometimes, starting flickeringly in my heart and moving up into a lump in my throat – it’s the quiet feeling you get right after you wake up from a nap or after you’ve cried out everything there is to cry.  It’s a specific sort of peace – I thought I would call it rest, or relief, but now I think it’s deeper, the type of rest you only get after you have given everything and embraced the stillness.

I feel it when I’m writing, sometimes, when I hit that unstoppable stride when nothing else in the world matters – I think it’s called flow.  But mostly it comes when I’m praying, when I’m worshiping, when Christ strikes me so deeply and so ecstatically that I open my mouth to cry out but nothing really emerges.  I can sometimes call it the Holy Spirit, but he speaks in various ways.

I walked out of today’s Good Friday service like this, this mix of sweet and salty, of pleasure and pain.  God is awesome, and in that word lies both fear and beauty, glory and ferocity.  There is still a lump in my throat, the inexplicable pleasant urgency of suddenly having a great and terrible tale unfolded and laid out before you – a tale intricately woven through our entire lives, existences, species, and fabric.  It’s a story of death and betrayal, but it’s mostly a story of redemption, life, and love, because the former allow the latter to manifest more beautifully and fully.  It’s ours only because God has made it so; he has humbled himself to human life and to death in order to let us be a part of it.  He pulls us into his world.

In these moments I see all the themes that I have loved for their truth emerge, the themes that have summoned up this feeling of rest in my soul – life, death, the substantiality that waiting affords, the pain and the broken striving of our race, the eventual renewal and much-awaited resurrection.  I see them converge and connect and my soul falls to its knees.

I have been worrying about thesis preparations for a while, now.  I am considering writing on these three days we have entered into – the days between Good Friday and Easter, the gap between death and resurrection that occupies the historical space, the lives of those who are dead in sin, and the waiting we all do while we still live in a land laid waste.  When the priest quoted T.S. Eliot I nearly cried – perhaps I should take it as a sign.

So, I leave you with this very short, very scattered post – take substance from the waiting, rest in the lull after your tears, and continue to seek out the things that tie us together and make us human.

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Read this: “East Coker,” T.S. Eliot

good friday

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, wehave peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And weboast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!  Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”  Romans 5:1-11

God’s love is absolutely unfathomable.

We are terrible.  Fallen.  Rebellious and turned away from God, refusing him and choosing our own sin.  We think we can live without him, we blame him for things, we fall.

And yet.

God loves us.

We’re absolutely awful, and He still loves us enough to take the punishment that we deserved.  I talked to someone yesterday about this, why we need faith at all, or why God can’t just forgive people.  And I didn’t have a fantastic answer to that, because it’s a very tough question.

But I thought through it a little bit.  God must be both just and loving.  If God wasn’t a God of justice who punished wrongdoing, then He wouldn’t be a good God.  And we wouldn’t want to follow a God that’s not good.  That’s just… crazy.  A just God must rule the universe, and so we must be punished.  We deserve to be punished.

But God is also loving.  He wants to share that perfect love with us, and bring us to Him forever.

The sin, however, still stands.  The damage has been done (by us), and somebody must pay for it.  Somebody has to take the blame.  Forgiveness always comes at a cost… and He took that on Himself.  He absorbed our blame when He died on the cross and took the weight of sin upon himself on our behalf.  And as He took that sin upon himself, God turned away from Him in that moment.  Can you imagine? It’s like being ripped apart from yourself.  And he did this all freely– John says that He gave up his spirit.  It was a conscious choice, for you and me.

It’s the most beautiful story I’ve ever heard.  I think this is part of the reason that stories of sacrificial love resonate so strongly with us– because it’s an eternal truth, one that we find beautiful. A Tale of Two Cities is still one of my favorite books because of the profound sacrifice of Sydney Carton (sorry if I spoiled it…).  Sacrifice is beautiful because it’s true and it’s happened for us.

The story gets even more beautiful with the resurrection from the dead, the craziest, awesomest, and most pivotal event in history.  It gives us eternal life and reconciliation.

Death for life.

Happy Good Friday, and, (if I don’t come back soon), Happy Easter!

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