I wrote this some years ago, during my time serving as a chaplain resident at UNC, but I think it still holds truth for this holy time leading up to Easter.
May it bless you all!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
I’ve become convinced that one of the most important days of Holy Week, which no-one takes time to notice, is today. The Saturday of Holy Week. Most all of us take time to celebrate Easter, many more of us may take time to celebrate Good Friday, and I know many Christians who take time to celebrate Maundy Thursday or Palm Sunday, but it seems like all of us want to tie on our running shoes, racing through Holy Saturday without thought, in order to get to Easter morning.
On one hand, who can blame us? There is the beautiful Easter sunrise services, the eggs and candy, the baskets, and for many of us Easter brunch and Easter dinner. There are the words “He is not here, he is risen”.
What’s more … Who wants to think about what this day was like? Jesus, buried behind a tomb. Judas hanging himself on a tree. The disciples hiding in fright, scattered to the four winds in fear. The hopes of all who followed Jesus shattered and lost… From the appearance of all who looked up, a day in which evil won, where injustice reigned triumphant, where oppression rules.
Though including details of both Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Sydney Carter’s beautiful bittersweet song “Bitter Was the Night” beautifully expresses the pathos of Holy Saturday:
But we cannot rush through to Easter. To truly appreciate the full depth of Easter, we need to take space to sit with the bitter pain of Holy Saturday, to sit at the tomb where Jesus lays, to face our own tombs. We need to stay a while with the disciples, to hear the cry of mother Mary as her baby boy lays in the tomb. I think as we do so, we can find Holy Saturday teaching us great things.
What does it teach us?
First it shows us the value of sitting with our own experience of pain and forsakenness.
So often we talk as if our experience of pain, of anguish, of uncertainty, and of doubt are signs that we have lost our way, that we have gone down the wrong road.
Often when I sit with family members facing sickness and loss as a minister, they tell me they need to put on a good face, speak a good positive word. Though there are times to focus on the positive, too often what it means is pushing down our pain, our heartache, and not facing it. Holy Saturday teaches us that trying to reach Easter, new beginning, and hope before we like Jesus sit in the midst of death, of grief, of loss, of terror, and total abandonment can mean not yet being ready. Facing and admitting our pain and heartache is part and parcel of the call of Holy Saturday.
What’s more, facing these and confessing these to others and God is ironically embracing the presence of God. On Holy Saturday God taking into God’s self the the experience of death, of abandonment, of guilt, and of hell through Jesus. On this day as one of us God experiences what it means to be totally abandoned by God. This means in the heart of our experiences of grief, of terror, and abandonment we are not alone though, as Jesus did on the cross, we do feel abandoned in those moments. In the midst of our experiences where God seems to have lost, when evil seems to have won, God come as man with men & women to dwell, also dead, also having lost to evil, injustice, and death, we find in Jesus God is already here holding us close, sitting with us. God joins us here, totally helpless and totally forsaken transforming our experiences of hopelessness and loss into encounters with God’s self.
So your experience of forsakeness and loss, your experience of uncertainty and doubt, your times when you turn to the heavens and they seem empty – all of these are moments full of divine presence.
This is why as he died Jesus cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and why Christian mystics have talked about the need to face the dark night of the soul.
We see this reflected in the psalms. Growing up as a child I attended an Adventist-style church with a tradition of singing the psalms. There I heard the following song–
This song, straight from the psalms, is so reflective of the psalms which are the prayerbook of Jesus, and so far removed from the very happy, upbeat songs of victory we often sing on Sunday mornings. Yet so much of what is prayed in the psalms are just like this – psalms expressing deep alienation, fear, doubt, and questioning.
In his writings the Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann argues that these psalms show us the journey of the spiritual life – one from orientation, where life makes sense and fits our preconceived notions; into disorientation, where like Jesus and the disciples on Holy Saturday, we face terror, grief, sadness, moments in which God does not make sense and may in fact appear powerless, evil, or non-existence; which only when truly confronted and faced lead into times of reorientation where faith, God, purpose, hope, and all that we lose sight of in our Holy Saturday moments of disorientation can begin to reappear in our lives like the sun rising on the empty tomb on Easter morning. Yet the reorientation experience of God, faith, hope, purpose, and life finds these things as being experienced not as things out there, outside of us, or simply empty words we believed but as treasures deeply rooted in our souls that are now not shakeable because they have been forged with the fire of doubt, fear, and loss.
The lesson then is to sit at your tombs, face your hells, express your heartache. Only in taking time for your Holy Saturday moments can you truly be ready for the Easters in which you find that healing in the broken places of doubt, terror, pain, and fear.
Let’s put the sneakers away this Holy Saturday and sit for awhile beside our tombs.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
Your Progressive redneck preacher,