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

tragedy

When I first set out to write this, I was thinking in purely literary terms of the four genres of expression – comic, tragic, lyric, and epic.  My friend texted me last week after I read the Waste Land, “What do you think the purpose of tragedy is?”

In light of this week’s nearly apocalyptic events, however, I think it apt to discuss, at least a little bit, the purpose of tragedy in literature and in our own lives.

I hadn’t really known the answer to that question before.  I’d read Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, Death of a Salesman, and related to them in a deep, basic way – I could feel the twisting of my gut as the inevitable suffering played out.  And there’s a lot to be said of it – it reminds us of the inevitability of our own mortality, provides us with a cathartic pity and fear so we can better live our own lives.  It shows us that there are forces at work far outside our own power.

All these are important – wildly so.  But there is one more, very simple thing that I realized while reading through Eliot’s Waste Land for the thousandth time: tragedy shows us the brokenness in the world and in relationships, and, by our deep, instinctive reactions to the events, shows us that things were never meant to be like this.

We live in a gloriously constructed world, filled with great beauty and a great potential for love, experience, and happiness.  At the same time, however, I think that we can forget its inherent brokenness – even as Christians, we tend to think that we are basically good, that this world can make us happy, and that we don’t really need anything else but ourselves.

Until, in a week of darkness, a city is bombed and riddled with bullets, a plant explodes and levels everything in its path, a sinkhole opens in the middle of a city, deadly letters are sent to world leaders, an earthquakes shakes miles of nations, and an already hurting country is bombed, its civilians murdered.  Oof.

Seeing this is so, so hard.  I’m not going to go into detail about the problem of pain here, about what God’s doing, or how He could possibly let these things happen.  I don’t know.  Thankfully, I’m not Him.  That can be so hard, and so frustrating, and so painful to see families broken and people grieving and souls hurting so desperately.  But I do know that He’s got a plan in all of this.

I do know that this world was once a beautiful thing, where relationships with God and people could be whole and lovely.  And I know that we sinned, and we used that free will to break that relationship with God – and consequently, everything else fragmented as well.

This is the world that the Waste Land shows us so precisely, a fragmented, perverse, and lost world.  Critics have labeled it as a generational issue with “the modern world”, but there’s a reason we’re still reading the poem.  In our era of flickering images and sound bites and texts and tweets, we’re more fragmented than we’ve ever been before.  Relationships were already cracked, but this constant “connectivity” has widened those cracks until they nearly splinter apart.  We’re more isolated than we’ve been.

But here’s the great beauty of this revelation, this painful truth about our world: it’s where the gospel starts.  We think to ourselves so often that we aren’t that bad and that we don’t really need God.  This realization of the state of our world – more than that, the state of us – leads to either despair or resurrection.

We live in the Waste Land, and we can see that.  But the Waste Land also lives in us, which should scare you.  Eliot’s whole poem hovers on the edge of a knife, between death and resurrection.  The bones of the Phoenician sailor are at the bottom of the ocean, the land is dry and cracked and broken.  But, something begins to stir these dead bones, and the thunder cracks across the sky, waiting.  We hover on a rebirth into eternity.

When we begin to see our own brokenness, we see that we need to be rescued, and that we can’t do it on our own.  As mortals, we will fail, and die, and the tragedy will end with a poisoned sword or a watery suicide.  But God saw this broken world and came down into it as one of us, and he died – and when he rose from the dead to new life, the healing began.

If we accept our brokenness, we can now accept the salvation that’s so freely offered to us.  Eliot did, and was able to find new life in Christ five years after the hopelessness of this poem.  We come to hopelessness so that we can understand hope when it is offered us.  If we live in Christ, we live forever, and we live in hope of healed people and a healed world.

The dead bones of the drowned Phoenician sailor don’t die, “but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange”.  So then do we.  The rains fall upon the thirsty, dry ground, and we learn how to love each other again.  It has to start here, on an individual level, where the Waste Land of your soul is inhabited by a loving, personal God who revives you and brings you back to life.

As hard as we try to instill goodness into people, this world will still be broken while Satan roams it.  Does this mean we should stop fighting against the brokenness, accept the evil in the world, and give up? By no means! The devil has no power where God is concerned.  He can only bend what is already good and try to break what God has already created.  We can fight against him.   And sometimes it’s awful.  But we have the hope of an empty tomb with us, and that is more powerful than any desolate, hollow Waste Land.

My prayers for safety, justice, and deep healing are with Boston, West Texas, China, Iraq, Iran, and the rest of our world.  May God bless and renew you.

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Read thisThe Waste Land, T.S. Eliot ; Mark 13:8 ; my other friend’s post

a week with nothing to say?

Well.  That’s certainly new.  I’m getting a little concerned, though.  You see, for the past two-ish weeks, I’ve been doing work pretty much non-stop.  It hasn’t been the most fantastic, but it hasn’t been bad.  What concerns me, however, is the nature of writing.  Is it an acquired skill?  Is thinking deeply an acquired skill?  If you get into the habit of not thinking, of living down here in the physical world in perpetuity, of not writing or considering eternity and the bigger questions, does it get easier to not do these things?

I don’t have that burning desire to write something right now.  I don’t have time.  Not really.  Do I make time?  Instead of making me want to write more, does the time gone without writing anyway slowly dull my mind and lull me into a sleepy sort of obscurity, taking away that desire all together?

I don’t really know.  I do know that habits are easy to form, however, good or bad, and that’s something I need to be careful of.  I, like most of humanity(?), am a creature of habit and addiction, willing to cling to comfort before giving it up for something harder.

So, this was quick (for me).  I’ll continue to find lees of time to hide from the winds of busyness in, and maybe I’ll shore some fragments there.

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