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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