This Easter, it is Holy Saturday that holds the key.
This week, we have travelled through Holy Week; the final part of Lent, a 40-day period of preparation leading up to Easter, called Lent. We do this every year, as part of the annual cycle. It is a familiar and comforting ritual for many people of faith.
This year, however, will be different. In the middle of a viral pandemic, with restrictions prohibiting gathering for worship, people of faith will be walking through Holy Week in their own homes, not in gatherings at church. We are not able to gather together. This year, we are gathering-apart. All the familiar patterns are changed. All the comforting rituals are altered. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/)
For that reason, this year I have been thinking much more about Holy Saturday, which is also known as Easter Eve. This day is a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, remembering the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, his burial in the tomb, and the grief of his followers. It is a time of looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge beyond those events.
In my thinking this year, Holy Saturday is the day for our current season. Services for people of faith to gather together on this day are rare; people do not expect to “go to church” on this day, even if they go on Friday or Sunday. But this year, this day takes on deeper significance. It speaks to our situation in a more compelling way.
Last year, I offered a service of reflection and prayer on Holy Saturday—and a small group of people attended, sat in silence, offered prayers for the congregation and the world, and experienced the eerie in-between, liminal, nature of this day.
Jesus, by tradition, had been laid in the tomb; on this day, according to one letter in the New Testament, he descended into Hades and “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). It is a time when there is no apparent activity evident on earth—but in the tradition, there is something significant happening “underground”.
On Holy Saturday, the tradition offers us a moment to pass, and reflect, and wonder: in this time of grief and abandonment, how is God still at work? How is faith still being made evident?
Back amongst the followers of Jesus, there was fear and grief. Jesus had been crucified and buried. He was no longer their leader. They had been left alone, suddenly, dramatically. What they had come to know and value as their normal and regular life together, had been interrupted, turned upside down.
The Gospels give us clear indications of this distress. If we enter into the stories that are offered by the evangelists, we might begin to imagine how the disciples were feeling.
On the road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus lament that their hopes were shattered (Luke 24:21). They are completely unaware of the identity of the stranger who walks with them; they are caught in their own hopelessness.
In a room in Jerusalem, followers gather behind closed doors, their fears intensified by events (John 20:19). They are not connected in any way with the news that had begun to percolate through the city. They are behind locked doors, because their fear was dominating their every thought, their every move.
Some days earlier, Thomas had uttered prophetic words, before the critical events had occurred, when he cried, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). That speaks for how the disciples were feeling, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. That speaks also for us, in our current situation.
Could this sense of fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness, be a point or connection with the story, for us for this current time? In this time of global pandemic, we are in a period of waiting, not knowing, a time of deepened fear and broken hopes. We look around and see that things are so, so different now. We are afraid for what will happen next. We do not know what is sure and certain, what is transient and passing. Life has suddenly looked so different.
Like the disciples, on that first Sabbath day after the death of Jesus, we do not know where we are going; we do not know where this global pandemic will end up. We do not know the ending—unlike the disciples after they encountered the risen Jesus, or the evangelists when they wrote their Gospels, or preachers through the centuries, who have been able to craft their sermons so that they point, inevitably, to the Good News that resolves the tension.
Like Thomas, we do not know where this is going. Like the two on the road to Emmaus, our hopes have been shattered. Like the group gathered behind locked doors, we are caught in the grip of fear. We do not know the ending.
We can have hope; we can pray, seek solace, look for comfort. But we do not know. We just do not know. And that is a very scary place to be.
Holy Saturday is where we are now, in society, in families, in the church, in our homes. Waiting with uncertainty; living with a different pattern; looking forward, hope against hope, to a different future. We are with the disciples, separated from the one they had given their all to follow, wondering what the next step might be.
The Christian festival of Holy Week moves on, beyond this day. It reaches its climax on Easter Day with celebration marking Jesus conquering death. “The Lord is risen: he is risen, indeed!” is the greeting we exchange on Easter Sunday.
The traditional Easter affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. This leads into an expression of joy, an Easter assertion, that the trauma and grief, the uncertainty and fear, are now passed. Life is different; hope is renewed; the future, even if it looks different, will still be viable.
For the next period of time, the Church is in a new season—the season of Easter, 40 days when the celebration of resurrection continues.
For us, and for all in society at this moment of pandemic, the time for that celebratory affirmation will come. But it will not come quickly. It will not come on the third day. It will not even come after the third month. It will require months of social isolation, before we can step out into that time of social reconnection and the resumption of a life together for society.
But until that time, we remain, sitting, isolated, uncertain, in our own Holy Saturday. Let us not run from that experience. Let us allow this time to deepen our faith and strengthen our discipleship, as we sit, silently, waiting, lamenting, praying.
Peter Lockhart offers this reflection on sitting in the silence: https://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-silence-of-god.html
Sarah Agnew has written this prayer for Holy Saturday: https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/04/a-prayer-for-holy-saturday.html
N.T. Wright offers this insight into the significance of lament in Christian tradition: https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/
Other blogs for this Easter: