Holy Saturday

April 3, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24
Reading 2: 
Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 4:1-8
Reading 4: 
John 19:38-42
By Bruce G. Epperly

Holy Saturday is the most neglected day in Holy Week. The celebrations of Palm Sunday, give way to the Last Supper of Holy Thursday, and the searing pain of Good Friday. On Holy Saturday, nothing happens. On Holy Saturday, we experience the silence of death. We don’t know whether the death of Jesus will be a tragedy, a hopeless defeat, or a comedy, an unexpected happy ending. Holy Saturday in its liminality is where we live our lives for the most part, hopeful of healing and success, but given no guarantees, whether this involves the nation’s economy and our own job prospects; a life-threatening health condition; global climate change; or the future of a relationship. There are no Hosannas or Alleluias on Holy Saturday. There is just the boredom and uncertainty of waiting.

Holy Saturday is the day when the diagnosis comes in and the doctor, referring to the prospects of your child’s survival, says “it’s either up or down,” life or death; Holy Saturday is the day after a spouse or partner’s death when the reality of loss sets in and you wonder if you’ll ever feel whole again; Holy Saturday is the “earth in the balance” between survival and destruction. No wonder we want to avoid Holy Saturday and spend the day shopping and preparing for the celebrative gatherings of Easter Sunday. As we experience the uncertainty of Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil and the Sunrise Service can’t come soon enough.

It is appropriate that the passages from Holy Saturday are ambiguous. Lamentations begins with the image of God the tormentor. Our times are in God’s hands, but God is anything but supportive. God afflicts, breaks, blinds, suffocates, and imprisons. God torments, but surprisingly the writer has hope for a new kind of God: “The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

I am not certain we can have it both ways, and this is problem with this passage. Can God be both faithful and tormenting? This sounds like the worst of parents, an abusive parent who vacillates between caresses and punches, words of kindness and shouts of condemnation. Can we trust an inconsistent God with our salvation and future hopes? Must God be the worst of parents, relating to creation, to God’s creaturely children, any way God wishes without any standard of behavior? Too often people accept violence from God that would lead to imprisonment if it were done by a human being. “God is God,” some say, “and can do whatever God wants.” Such theologies exalt power over love and willfulness over care. As the process theologians note, even if God’s ability to work in our lives is limited by our previous decisions, social context, and physical condition, God still aims at wholeness, the highest possibilities relevant to our current life. The “best for the impasse” is simply that, the highest possibility toward which we can aspire despite the negativities of life.

If we use this passage at all, we need to address the ambiguity in God. Perhaps, the first part of today’s reading reflects the existential experience of pain and abandonment projected on an apparently indifferent and yet destructive universe. Process theologians opt for the second section of today’s reading as representative of the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth; a God who is faithful, merciful, dependable, and also innovative. “God’s mercies are new every morning,” adjusting themselves to the best possibilities emerging from our current condition.

Then, again the tension in the Lamentations may represent the “in between” state when one image of God has died and another is being born. For many of us, the God of power and abuse is no longer viable. We can find hope and challenge only in “God with us” who seeks our healing and wholeness without ambiguity.

Psalm 31 is a cry for help in a desperate situation. The Psalmist seeks protection from a loving and faithful God. Yet, the Psalmist also quite realistically recognizes that God cannot fully protect us. Faithful Christians grieve the loss of children, die in earthquakes and tsunamis, and endure unremitting pain. There are no guarantees of recovery on Holy Saturday, but there is the cry to the One who we believe can make a way where there is no way.

The reading from I Peter proclaims that the end is near. The day of judgment is upon us. Yet, two thousand years later, many persons are still waiting for a final resolution to the human adventure. Someday, perhaps long after the human race has expired or left the planet, the Earth will be destroyed by a solar explosion; but in the meantime, the “end” we fear is upon us on a daily basis, reflected in the fragility and brevity of life. In light of God’s work in Jesus of Nazareth, we are challenged to live faithful and loving lives. Judgment is a reality: we may have to face the opportunities we squandered; the pain we caused; the persons we neglected or passed by. So, the author counsels, live mindfully, aware of God’s call to seize the day, living by fidelity and love. But, judgment is not final, nor does it thwart God’s faithfulness. Even in the afterlife, I Peter suggests that God offers good news to post-mortem pilgrims. In light of the resurrection, God’s holy adventure calls us to adventures in this life and the next.

John’s gospel describes the finality of Jesus’ burial. Apart from the resurrection, still an event in the future for Jesus’ grieving followers, there is no image of hope, but simply the silent realm of the dead. Jesus’ first followers must wait for something they cannot possibly imagine at the moment, the bright sunrise of Easter morning.

Can we confront the stark uncertainties of Holy Saturday and live hopefully in a world without absolute guarantees? Or, will we give up hope, projecting our hopelessness on an image of God as destroyer as well as lover? Perhaps, like Thomas, described in first Sunday after Easter, we will stay close to resurrection persons, despite our doubts and uncertainty. Holy Saturday may be a “thin place” that opens us to new life in the midst of death.

To those who shout “so what” in reference to Holy Saturday, the message of Holy Saturday involves exploring your images of God in light of God’s love present in Jesus Christ and learning to live faithfully despite the uncertainties of life.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.