Keeping Vigil: A Holy Saturday Reflection

Holy Saturday is the moment when darkness has descended and there is nothing to make you think, “It will be all right.” It won’t. It can’t be. The worst has occurred and nothing will ever be the same. That’s how it feels. If you have known, this last week or this last year, a moment like that–when someone you have loved died, or when some other great tragedy has swept over you like a tidal wave–then you’ll have glimpsed a bit of how Jesus’ followers must have felt that day.

This morning a colleague thoughtfully shared these words from N. T. Wright with those us who make up the faculty of Bethel’s Political Science and History departments. As many of you know, in the past four months we’ve suffered the deaths of two beloved colleagues: Stacey Hecht and G.W. Carlson. And indeed, this particular Holy Saturday does feel, even more than usual, like the worst has occurred and nothing will ever be the same.

Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
Hans Holbein the Younger, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1521) – Wikimedia

If I could, I would simply skip today. Never more than now, I’m desperate to open my eyes to the resurrection dawn of Easter morning, to be reminded that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor 15:20). Instead, here I sit: dredging up the doubts and despair that won’t entirely fade; writing a blog post in order to avoid other work.

At least I have the option of distracting myself with labor. The followers of Jesus had to keep the Sabbath. How their memories and feelings must have churned as they “rested according to the commandment” (Lk 23:56b) of a God who seemed to have forsaken his Son.

I wonder if that was the first Saturday in his life that Peter wished he could hold a fishing net in his calloused hands, when he would have given anything to forget the sound of his own voice denying his Savior.

Did Matthew and John wish they could erase from their minds’ eyes the terrible events that they would eventually write down? Could they have known then, when there was no good news to tell, that they would publish gospels?

Meister Francke, The Entombment of Jesus
Meister Francke, “The Entombment of Jesus” (1430) – Wikimedia

Did the scent of the funereal spices and ointments the women had prepared (the other tiny detail that Luke’s gospel tells of the time between Crucifixion and Resurrection) remind Jesus’ mother of the Magi’s myrrh, as she pondered for the thousandth time Simeon’s words (“…a sword will pierce your own soul too”)? Did their fragrance remind Mary of the nard she had poured over the same feet where she had sat and listened to her rabbi? Was her sister, remembering the stench of their brother’s once-decaying body and worried and distracted as ever, itching to return to the tomb and perfume Jesus?

But while I think Wright’s right that we can “glimpse” those feelings, I also know that my capacity for historical empathy is significantly limited by my historical impatience:

While I can barely bear a single day so desolate, the followers of Jesus belonged to a people who had sat through darkness after darkness for century after century. Their last supper with him, after all, had been a Passover feast, an annual “vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations” (Exod 12:42). And the God who gave laws to Moses, psalms to David, and prophecies to Isaiah had stopped inspiring new scriptures hundreds of years before. Like their parents and grandparents, Peter, Matthew, John, Mary, Mary, and Martha had lived all of their lives in the active expectation that aging words of promise were not being repeated in vain.

If they had not been discouraged by God’s silence or disillusioned by rises and falls of false messiahs, perhaps the first Christians did not grieve as people without hope that Sabbath.

If they keep it at all, most of their spiritual descendants observe Holy Saturday as a blip: there’s barely enough time for the Reproaches of Good Friday to fade from our ears before they’re overwhelmed by the Alleluias of Easter Sunday. But in a sense, Holy Saturday reminds us that the people of the new covenant, like those of the old, are also destined to wait for generation upon generation, observing what can feel like a “perpetual ordinance” as we inhabit the ever-lengthening scriptural gap between the future visions of Revelation and the historical events of the New Testament.

Easter will dawn soon enough. But today, I will grieve. I will doubt. (If no other, this day I too will cry out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”) I will keep vigil, waiting for the Lord “more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps 130:6).

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