Holy Saturday fascinates me. The Bible tells us almost nothing about this mysterious day sandwiched between crucifixion and resurrection when God allowed the whole of creation to live without answers. It’s a day of confusion and silence.
Roman Catholics and many Anglicans strip their altars bare – back to the bones. I guess it’s the one day in the entire year when the Church has nothing to say.
And yet, although we know so little about it, Holy Saturday seems to me to describe the place in which many of us live much of our lives: waiting for God to say something, or do something or make sense of the things we are experiencing. We know that Jesus died for us yesterday. We trust that there may be miracles tomorrow. But what of today – this eternal Sabbath when heaven is silent? Where, we wonder, is God now?
Like Job’s comforters, we often attempt to solve the problem of God’s silence with simplistic explanations of complex situations, lopsided applications of Scripture and platitudes of premature comfort.
We are afraid to simply wait with the mess of problems unresolved until God Himself unmistakably intervenes, as He did on Easter Sunday. We are unwilling to admit, “I don’t have a clue what God is doing or why this is happening.” We may even suspect that it would be un-Chrislike to cry out publicly, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” Why can’t we wait in the mess and pain of Holy Saturday?
Rushing the resurrection
I went to the funeral of a friend named Simon who had died very suddenly of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and four young children. It was unspeakably sad, especially as I watched his children at the front of the church, pale as milk in their smartest clothes, trying to be so very brave and grown-up and appropriate for us all – trying to make their daddy proud. One of the daughters played a piece on the recorder. Another did a reading, and her voice hardly faltered. Then the pastor stood up and invited a band to lead us in a time of worship.
What happened today on earth?
There is a great silence.
A great silence, and stillness,
A great silence because the King sleeps.
Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday
We all sang songs and, to my surprise, some of the people in the front row started dancing. I know why they were doing it – they wanted to celebrate the fact that Simon will rise again with Christ; that God was in charge.
In a way I loved them for the sheer defiant absurdity of it all. But then I saw something that almost broke my heart. We were singing “Show Us Your Power O Lord” which – according to the service sheet – had been one of Simon’s favourites, when his seven year old daughter turned her head and stared at the coffin. “Show us your power O Lord,” we continued and she just kept staring at the coffin. It was a simple thing but, as I say, it almost broke my heart.
A number of eulogies followed, and everyone said lovely things about Simon. One of the speakers explained how intricately God’s hand could be seen in the timing of Simon’s death. We believed him – we needed to believe him – but it seemed to me that for the four little faces on the front row, the timing could not have been more wrong. Their father had been this inevitable presence in their lives. He had been forever. Theories of death and providence no longer applied. Streets should be empty. The Disney Channel should come off the air.
In spite of all the singing, dancing and detailed assurances (or perhaps because of them), I drove away later thinking how very fragile our faith must be if we can’t just remain sad, scared, confused and doubting for a while. In our fear of unknowing, we leapfrog Holy Saturday and rush the resurrection. We race disconcerted to make meaning and find beauty where there simply is none. Yet.
From dusk on Good Friday to dawn on Easter Sunday, God allowed the whole of creation to remain in a state of chaos and despair. Martin Luther dared to suggest, “After Good Friday” – and I imagine him whispering the words – “God’s very self lay dead in a grave."
The scholar Alan E. Lewis was one of the few people to have written and thought seriously about Holy Saturday. When eventually he began to draw his thoughts together in a book called Between Cross and Resurrection he discovered - half way through the project - that he was dying of incurable cancer. Suddenly the theme had become deeply personal. Here is one of his prayers from that book:
Hear our prayer for a world still living an Easter Saturday existence, oppressed and lonely, guilty of godlessness and convinced of godforsakeness. Be still tomorrow the God you are today, and yesterday already were: God with us in the grave, but pulling thus the sting of death and promising in your final kingdom and even greater victory of abundant grace and life over the magnitude of sin and death. And for your blessed burial, into which we were baptised, may you be glorified for evermore.
Alan E Lewis (1944 – 1994)
This article is extracted from God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer which traces Christ’s journey from Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, to Easter Sunday, in search of honest answers to the darkest, most painful questions of our lives.