Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Saturday: A Day of Few Words

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation. Psalm 62:1-2

Of the four Gospel writers, Mark’s version is the most action-packed. Mark doesn’t waste many words so we should pay attention to every word we read. While Mark does not describe some events that other Gospel writers do, there are some details in his account that are unique to his telling of the story. Also, Mark’s is thought to be the oldest account of the life of Jesus dating from around 70 AD. Other Gospel writers likely borrowed from Mark when they wrote, so there is some sense that his words carry added authenticity.

When it comes to the story of the last week of Jesus’ life—what we call Holy Week— Mark’s account is probably the easiest to figure out what events happened on what day. Mark describes a steady stream of events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday—see Mark 11–15. From Thursday night on, the events come in rapid succession. There is the Last Supper where “communion” is instituted, Jesus’ betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial before the High Priest, Peter’s denial of Jesus, the trial before Pilate and release of Barabbas to satisfy the crowd, and the suffering and humiliation of Christ, the walk down the Via Delarosa to Calvary—all culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus.

But then, as we come to the end of Mark 15, it almost looks like something is missing. There has been all this action and then suddenly—nothing. An entire day passes with no words to describe it[1]. When we pick up the action in Mark 16, it is early on Sunday and the women are on their way to the tomb.

What are we to make of this lack of words, this relative silence about Saturday from all four Gospel writers?

If we answer strictly from our modern human perspective, we might be tempted to think nothing is said because what happened on Saturday wasn’t all that important to the story. If it was, the writers would have said so, wouldn’t they? In today’s information saturated world, every detail would be documented and posted on message boards, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter—and then we would have to figure out what details really mattered. And after all, if the events of Saturday were so important to remember, wouldn’t we have a church service that day too? (Yes, I know some places do. J)

In his memoirs called The Pastor, Eugene Petersen talks about his experience as a child working in his father’s butcher shop on the Saturday before Easter. His family were devout church goers and worshipped faithfully on Good Friday and of course Easter Sunday, but for them, “Holy” Saturday was a like any other day if not more so. The day before Easter was a day of brisk commerce at the shop as everyone rushed to purchase the ham for tomorrow’s dinner. While Jesus’ body was lying in the tomb silent and still, the Petersen’s were busy making a living; I suppose it’s what you did if you were in that profession.

I’m afraid that two thousand years of church history has robbed Easter Sunday of much of its wonder and amazement. For our post-Christian world, there’s not much in the way of suspense between Friday and Sunday anymore. We know how the story ends and we kind of view the middle as boring and unimportant—and, frankly, we often skip directly to the end of the story because that’s the part we like the most. Perhaps we attend an Easter Egg Hunt or some other secular event that reminds us that it’s the Saturday before Easter, but that’s typically about the size of it. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of us are like the Petersen family; we go on with business as usual in our lives on Holy Saturday.

Even for clergy and their families—maybe especially for us—the Saturday before Easter (and frankly the entire week leading up to it) is usually extremely busy. As a pastor’s spouse I can attest that we are often scurrying about on Holy Saturday trying to squeeze in something fun for our kids, and making final preparations for Easter Sunday worship. Holy Saturday is by no means a day of rest and reflection for the Ward family. For clergy families like ours, it’s business as usual on the day before Easter—in fact it tends to be one of the most hectic days of our year!

But we should remember that there was none of this over-familiarity for Jesus’ first followers. For these men and women, Saturday—the Jewish Sabbath day—dawned eerily quiet and still. They huddled together that Saturday hiding from the Roman authorities. It was a Sabbath day of mourning their fallen friend laced with fearing for their own lives. What they witnessed Friday night was terrible, but Saturday was probably even worse for them. Jesus, their teacher and leader these past three years, is dead and buried. The sense of anxiety and even outright despair in the room where they hid after the crucifixion must have been so thick you could cut it with a knife.

On that first Holy Saturday, it appears that evil has triumphed. All hopes the disciples had for the Messiah to come and liberate them have failed. Jesus is dead; God has left them alone to face their fate.

When the Sabbath ended on Saturday evening the disciples had little or no idea that the wondrous events of Sunday morning were about to unfold. You can see it in the their stunned reactions when the women bring them the news of the empty tomb. It catches them completely off guard; they have to run and see for themselves. Even once they see with their own eyes they still aren’t sure quite what to make of it all. It takes a while for the reality of what actually happened to sink in.

As we pull back and see Holy Saturday from God’s perspective we learn an important lesson: Sometimes God does his most important work when, from our limited human viewpoint, God appears to be “absent” or even “dead”.

Did you know there is an entire doctrine of theology (God-talk) devoted to what was happening on Holy Saturday? The doctrine is called the harrowing of hell[2] and it states that while Jesus’ body was lying sealed in a tomb, still and silent from our human perspective, a divine drama played out in a realm our eyes cannot see. Christ descended to hell and set free many captives who had died before. (This would have been consistent one of the major streams of Jewish beliefs at the time where the Messiah was to lead a “general” resurrection of all the faithful Jews who had died as martyrs.) The Apostle’s Creed is one of the earliest summaries of Christian belief; it is still used today in many churches and certain versions of it include the line: “He descended to the dead”.

Clearly, the earliest followers of Jesus believed that whatever Jesus did on Saturday was a vital precursor to what would happen Sunday, and felt it worth mentioning in a summary of what they believed.

For the most part, the writers of Scripture, writing a few decades after Jesus lived, chose not to tackle this topic. You will find what seems to be a rather awkward reference to it in Matthew—compare Mark 15:33-39 with Matthew 27:45-54—and there are a few other places in the New Testament that appear to reference the idea.

It’s not clear exactly why the New Testament writers weren’t more explicit about what happened to Jesus on Holy Saturday. There are a variety of answers that have been suggested. Frankly, my guess is that there are some topics that defy being expressed adequately in words and what Jesus was doing on Saturday is one of those topics. It’s what theologians would call a mystery. That doesn’t mean it’s not important but it does mean that it’s hard to explain and categorize neatly. Such mystery may offend our modern theological sensibilities, especially in the Christian West, but a good storyteller isn’t bothered by a bit of mystery and intrigue—and we should remember that the Gospel-writers were first and foremost storytellers.

I think it makes the Story of Jesus even more compelling and wondrous when every detail is not spelled out explicitly. We’re left to speculate and use our God-given creative imagination to fill in the missing pieces. We discover that there are indeed times when silence speaks louder than words…


[1] The truth is, very little is said about Saturday in any of the gospels. Luke 23:56b simply says that the disciples rested on the Sabbath as the law commanded. Matthew 27:62-66 tells us that the Jewish authorities go to Pilate and request that guards be posted at Jesus’ tomb “until the third day” to prevent Jesus’ followers from removing the body and making “false” claims of resurrection. But none of them say anything about what Jesus was doing on Saturday, when from our human perspective, his body lay in a tomb—dead.

[2] Eastern Orthodox Christians would likely be more familiar with this doctrine than most of us in the West; they celebrate it in their worship on Holy Saturday. There is interesting symbolism used as the liturgical colors start out somber and dark, but are changed to white in the middle of worship symbolizing that the harrowing of hell has taken place and the resurrection of Jesus is now imminent.

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