I have many memories of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Of Thursday evening foot washing and images of Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners. Of silent adoration in dark chapels through Thursday night. Of a child’s efforts to be quiet from 12:00 to 3:00 on Friday, and then of adolescent awe at mournful Latin chants as I knelt to kiss the crucifix. And of Easter baskets and egg hunts (as a child and with my children) preceded recently by the fire and candle lighting and the great “Exultet” of the Easter liturgy.
But I have no memories of Holy Saturday. Or perhaps just a vague childhood reminiscence of waiting for the Easter candy that will finally end Lent.
The absence of any special sense of Holy Saturday is perhaps what’s meant to be. Something like the sound of silence without the angst of Paul Simon’s song. Or like the emptiness of a subway station late at night when even the sound of wheels screeching up or down the tunnels has disappeared. (Maybe you need to have lived in New York.)
Yet I recently read a reflection about Holy Saturday which opened me to deeper sense of the day. (Unfortunately I can’t give a reference because I’ve misplaced the copy I brought home from church.) The writer, an Irish nun, focused on the sense of loss we need to allow ourselves to feel on Holy Saturday. Think of the disciples, having fled and then perhaps viewing Jesus’ crucifixion from a distance. Even more of Mary and the women who stayed with Him. And recall the haunting words and melody of the slave song “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”. Imagine the pain of their terrible loss, their guilt and shame, their fear and confusion. Trembling as their dream ended in such trauma.
Ignatius Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges us to enter imaginatively into that loss and confusion, and to know that it remains ours. To let the death of Jesus expand to include, as it surely does, the death and violence of our world – the death of loved ones, the murder of innocents, the martyrdom of saints. (I recently joined others at my university to celebrate the life and murder of Oscar Romero, and the many other murders, known and unkown, which preceded and followed his in El Salvador during the 1980s.) And the murder of innocents today in Aleppo and Bhagdad, the Congo and the Philippines. And in schools, churches, and cities throughout our country.
Think, too, not just of the high priests and pundits who continue to justify such murder and loss. But even more of the tyrants and militarists who cause them – the many, many Pontius Pilates of our era. Not only Hitler and Stalin and Mao, but so many “lesser” war criminals in Syria and Serbia, Moscow and Washington.
On Holy Saturday we are asked to open hearts and minds not only to the execution of one just man, but to all death — of those we know or know about – and to the guilt we often feel about not having done enough, of even contributing by our failures and indifference. And, perhaps especially but not only for religious folk, to the confusion these realities cause for human faith and hope. About where God or goodness is in all this? We believers hope that God prevails even amidst such evil and suffering, and Christians believe that Jesus’ death reveals that even God suffers within all evil.
But how often does that answer help? How much more are we like those disciples on Friday night and throughout the following Saturday. Alone, afraid, confused, trembling, terrified. “Were you there…?”
Such, as I understood her, was the challenge of Holy Saturday described by this Irish nun.
And yet I still have this vague childhood memory of anticipating Easter candy throughout Holy Saturday. A memory now grown into the many dimensions of Easter hope.
A granddaughter was born to us this year exactly two weeks before Holy Saturday – early on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day. Her presence will highlight this year’s Easter as her “older” brother searches for eggs and gobbles candy, just as we and our children did.
Every birth nourishes our hope. Every celebration is rooted as much in hope as in memory. The resurrection of Christ is not a one-off. Rather it embraces and embodies all the joys and hopes humans have experienced throughout history. For many in the world the Easter story is a symbol or myth about the reality of rebirth and renewal. For Christians it is far more than symbol or myth, important as they may be. It is what some theologians call an “eschatological” event, something we believe really happened even though it remains mysterious, but something that reveals the fullest depth and widest horizon of all time. For just as Jesus’ brutal death embraces all death and violence and injustice, so too does His resurrection announce and embody all joy and hope.
Of course, such assertions trip too easily off the tongues of church folk. Early on Paul proclaimed his resurrection faith by challenging Death itself: “Where now is thy sting?” (I Cor 15: 55). Yet he later, according to tradition, knew the sting of death by beheading, just as we too regularly experience the sting of the death of others and will inevitably experience our own death.
Yet (again) we nonetheless know the many joys symbolized by (or embodied in) the resurrection. In events and moments both big and small. In lovemaking and birth, baptisms and graduations, good jobs and good neighborhoods, even (if we pay attention) in much good business and good government – and of course in the poetry and song, the good food and drink, whereby we daily celebrate this world’s goodness – the goodness of God’s creation and of God’s saving grace (“how sweet the sound”).
Here then (finally) is the point. Holy Saturday is not just the day when we’re challenged to remember together both terrible loss and tremendous hope. It is rather a reminder of everyday, of all times and seasons when we are challenged to live “between death and resurrection.”
“Between” is, I think, the important word here. It’s a matter of holding together in one fundamental form of experience both the bitter taste of death and the sweet taste of life. Not splitting them apart, fleeing the one and chasing after the other, as I typically do both in my imagination (here the bliss, there the bitter) and in my actual living. As our media typically does (good guys and bad) and as it shapes our imaginations to do.
Authentic or full human living is always about this “between” – this tension and intermixing. It requires a constantly challenging both-and rather than an easy either-or. It requires the inner and outer work of integration rather than the escape of separation and polarization.
How such integration “plays out” (what it’s story and drama may be) in your life will be different from the way it is in mine. Different across family and ethnic stories, and in the history of different nations and cultures. Yet the basic challenge is the same for all.
Holy Saturday is everyday – far more than Good Friday or Easter Sunday. Yes, of course, those great days enable us to know (whether in faith and fact or simply as symbol and myth) the realities of good and evil within which we live. Yet it is the experience of Holy Saturday – both the sting of death and the anticipation of candy – that most embodies the ever ambiguous and challenging character of our human life . Between death and resurrection, in both terrible sorrow and great joy, both courageous realism and real hope.