A Holy Saturday faith this Advent and Christmas
December 17, 2020
One recent Friday evening, I went for a walk in the rain. At the end of a difficult day and following a long week working from home with my children engaged in remote learning, I needed some time alone to clear my head.
My neighborhood was dark but for the occasional streetlight and houses decorated with Christmas lights glistening in the cold rain. As one mile became two, I pondered the darkness between the lights and the absence of God.
Perhaps Nietzsche was right when he said God is dead, though not in the sense that we have outgrown our capacity for devotion to God, or gods, or even to things that stand in for the divine. Human beings remain remarkably religious, capable of devotion to many things including and apart from God.
After all, many remain devoted to the kingdoms and concerns of this world—politics, party, ideology, philosophy, markets, family, money, career—whether or not they also claim citizenship in a kingdom not of this world; a kingdom of heaven that is now and not yet, that, in Christ, has come and is coming.
Perhaps, however, Nietzsche was right in a more deeply theological sense. For in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, in between the crucifixion and the resurrection, God is dead. While not as widely observed in Protestant churches as Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Holy Saturday recalls this suspended state between crucifixion and resurrection.
With the coronavirus pandemic, Holy Saturday has, for me, taken on a deeper meaning that extends beyond the boundaries of its observance during Holy Week. Just as an Easter faith celebrates the resurrection each Sunday, a Holy Saturday faith—suspended between the bad news of the crucifixion and the good news of the resurrection—might have significance beyond Holy Week in a world similarly suspended between death and life.
One of the pandemic challenges with which I wrestle is the monotony of everyday existence. Days run into each other with little transition between home and office, much less distinction between personal and professional life. For my children, life remains similarly structured but without definition or differentiation. Saturdays bring a break from the routine of online classes and meetings, but not from being in the space in which that work has been done each week. The need to get out, go somewhere, and do something different from the daily routine is constrained by sensible precautions to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and protect public health.
Just as an Easter faith celebrates the resurrection each Sunday, a Holy Saturday faith—suspended between the bad news of the crucifixion and the good news of the resurrection—might have significance beyond Holy Week in a world similarly suspended between death and life.
Advent and Christmas intrude on this monotony, an annual reminder that God has acted and is acting to “to redeem from insignificance,” in Auden’s words, our everyday routines—the “bills to be paid, machines to be kept in repair.”[i] Within the shadows of contemporary life and the growing gloom of a pandemic resulting in so much death and grief, these holy days remind us that the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, dwells among us still; that Emmanuel, God with us, is with us still, and will come again in the fullness of time, to redeem not only the monotony of our everyday routines, but time itself, and us.
God understands the bleakness of our days and the sadness and sorrow of life touched by suffering and death. Before his birth, Jesus’ parents were compelled by a distant emperor to make a difficult journey to the town of their ancestors to register for a census. Jesus was born in the darkness of a cave, in the distant province of a sprawling empire now long since fallen. Following his birth, to protect him from the murderous decree of a jealous king, Jesus’ family fled to the land that had enslaved his ancestors.
Jesus grew to know the fullness of life’s joy and sorrow, beauty and ugliness. He felt the sting of betrayal and the denial of those closest to him. He felt the pain of rejection. He knew temptation, suffering, and death and, at his moment of maximum peril, the crisis of being forsaken by God, his father.
The Good News is not that God will spare us suffering, pain, and death. Rather it is that God will be with us through it all. As the Psalmist reminds us, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help,” not escape, from that which troubles our days. (Psalm 46:1).
When I returned home, the rain falling harder than before, I looked at the Christmas lights on my own house, beautiful in their own way, working harder than necessary against the deepening darkness of winter. God has acted and is acting to redeem from insignificance the monotony of our everyday routines, and, more than this, to redeem us. Holy Saturday. Merry Christmas.