Living on the Edge (Holy Saturday)

Tomorrow is Holy Saturday.  After observing the death of Jesus on Good Friday, we are now in a between-time, a boundary between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  Spiritually, these boundary places (and times) are spaces of great upheaval, spaces of unpredictability, spaces where anything is possible, anything can happen.  There is even a scientific basis to this, from the realm of chaos theory: it is in the boundary places where chaos tends to occur.  The coastline of Britain is a famous fractal, showing the same degree of irregularity no matter how far you zoom in or zoom out, and of course, this is the boundary space between land and sea.  On Holy Saturday, we sit in this same kind of boundary space.

For the followers of Jesus, for his mother and brothers, for his closest friends who shared in the first Eucharist with him on Maundy Thursday, Holy Saturday was the Sabbath, the day of rest ordained by God.  I’m sure this was a particularly miserable Sabbath for them all, too.  It wasn’t like our Saturdays, which are usually jam-packed with soccer games and housekeeping chores and grocery shopping and leisure activities.  No, they could not distract themselves from their grief, anger, and fear with work.  Heck, even taking a walk was out of the question, because you could only walk so many steps on the Sabbath… and what if something came up later, like an emergency?  No, better to sit tight, just in case.  And, of course, the close disciples were waiting for the axe of Roman authority to fall on their own heads, so that the cult of Jesus could be wiped out in one fell swoop, no longer to be a danger to the Empire.  So this was a Saturday of sitting together, of weeping, of perhaps anxious pacing within the house.  The meals were already prepared the day before, and dishes weren’t even to be washed today.  The women couldn’t even keep their hands busy with sewing or mending.  Without being able to do anything, all of Jesus’ friends and followers had to spend this day simply being.

In this boundary space, anything could happen.  And something did happen — something huge.  In the readings for

Jesus' Descent to the Dead (Icon from Great Byzantine Catholic Church, Irving, TX)
Jesus' Descent to the Dead (Icon from Great Byzantine Catholic Church, Irving, TX)

Holy Saturday, the gospel tells of Joseph of Arimathea, who claimed Jesus’ body from Pilate and quickly buried it in Joseph’s own tomb, before rushing home for the Sabbath.  And in that tomb, in this between-time between sunset on Good Friday and sunrise on Sunday morning, a miracle took place.  We don’t know what physically, literally, actually happened inside that tomb, behind the heavy stone.  All we know comes from eyewitness accounts the next morning, from the words spoken by the resurrected Jesus.

The Apostles’ Creed contains one line that is intriguing and mystifying:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
Jesus' Descent into Hell (Icon in the Russian Museum)
Jesus' Descent into Hell (Icon in the Russian Museum)

In the version we use in The Episcopal Church, this line says he descended to the dead. The New Testament tells us that the grace and salvation of Jesus are not limited only to those who live after him in linear time; we know that everyone who has ever lived is God’s child, a brother or sister of Jesus, and welcome in God’s kingdom.  I also believe that God’s kingdom exists outside of linear time, as does the place of the dead; thus, I’m not sure yet whether it would be strictly necessary for Jesus to enter into hell, into the place of the dead, to free those who lived in this world before AD 34.  However, I don’t know how deep the pervading thought of the first century went, though, into ideas of linear time and existence outside of time.  It is certainly easier if, for example, one is trying to explain this to a child, to say, yes, Jesus went among the dead to bring them all to heaven with him.

Regardless of how this happened, whether in physical linear time or in some dimension we aren’t even capable of understanding, there is really one important thing to remember about this part of the story.  Are you

Jesus' Descent Into Hell
Jesus' Descent Into Hell

ready for it?  The important part is this: it happened.  It really, actually took place.  Jesus did open the gates of the place of the dead, so that all of God’s children can take part in God’s love, in the saving grace of Jesus, in the kingdom that lasts forever.  Many of the icons and pieces of art show Jesus rescuing Adam and Eve, which is an important theological lesson.  Even better, I’d like to see Jesus emerging from the place of the dead, holding the hands of Judas and his step-father.  Wouldn’t that be a powerful image, contrasting the fatherly love of Joseph on one hand with the betrayer of Jesus on the other?  It would show that every one of us is invited to God’s Feast, even the man who turned Jesus in to the authorities.

However, on the Sabbath following Jesus’ crucifixion, nobody in the place of the living

Descent of Jesus Into Hell (Scholgauer engraving)
Descent of Jesus Into Hell (Engraving by Martin Scholgauer)

knows this yet.  They are still living in the chaos and confusion of the boundary space, the between-time.  They are feeling empty, idle, sad, afraid, alone.  They are probably wondering whether anything will ever be right and good again, if someone like Jesus can be executed by the Romans.  Will the people of Israel ever see the prophecied Messiah, the King who will free them from foreign invaders?  They thought Jesus was the one… well, they had thought he was the one, but could it be possible for God’s annointed savior to actually die?  And not just die, but to be scourged, stripped, and crucified by the foreign invaders themselves?  I’m sure doubts crept in, along with the fear and the grief and the loss.  I certainly can’t blame them for feeling doubt: I have enough doubts of my own, when I suffer a loss.   And I have never suffered a loss as great as this one.

So on this Holy Saturday, we sit in the between-time, in the boundary space.  Behind the stone of Jesus’ tomb, where we can’t see, marvelous things are happening.  In the morning, the glory of these miracles will be revealed, so that we can begin again to try to grasp them, to understand them, to take within ourselves the reality that while Jesus may have died, he never did and never will — ever — stop living.

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