Acts of Holy Saturday that Defy Despair | Sojourners

Acts of Holy Saturday that Defy Despair

I am a pastor who, like so many others, has been planning for an Easter under quarantine conditions. As I have grappled with whether it is possible for congregations like mine to have Easter without experiencing ourselves as the physical, gathered body of Christ, I have found myself in the company of those biblical characters who traverse the cold, gray landscape of Holy Saturday, whose eyes have long been adjusted to the dark. They model the kind of Christian spirituality available to us in times such as these.

Make no mistake, space is winning a victory over time this year. Our calendars will tell us it is Easter Sunday, but our bodies will know different. Our bodies, entombed and separated from each other by our social distancing efforts, will be stuck in Saturday. In this Easter-less place, where we all feel like ghostly, insubstantial versions of ourselves, the spice-carrying women heading off into the night, the Emmaus-bound men speaking about the times, and grief-wracked Mary before the tomb are the glimmers by which we move. I am drawn to them because, even with the curtain closed on Jesus’ life, they illumine the human tasks set before us: to anoint, to question, to weep. In so doing, we desire Easter rather than presume possession of it.

I first follow the women whose baskets smell strangely of the world from which we have fallen (Mark 16:1-3). Sharp and aromatic, an unexpected texture here in unchanging Saturday. They are bringing these spices to the entombed Jesus, certain that even in death his body is to be anointed, valued, cared for. This is a Christian task, this dignifying of the dead. The coronavirus crisis is a summons, before anything else, to the ministries of care, through digital means or otherwise.

Here in Saturday, we are tasked with practicing a spice economy, offering to one another the basic stuff of human dignity: prayer, story, daily bread. I make phone calls on Sunday mornings to offer prayer. I receive freshly laid eggs from Harold Yates, an elderly parishioner who keeps livestock. My wife sends letters to a woman in solitary confinement. A young, local vegetable farmer takes orders for home delivery. A teacher volunteers to ride a bus for day, delivering meals to food-insecure children. A check labeled “Quiet Money” arrives in the mail to ease some small burden.

I then seek the men walking down the road. As I come upon them, they are “talking with each other about all these things that had happened” (Luke 24:14). I lean in and listen: They are asking terribly difficult questions in the safety of one another’s company. Questions about the recent failure of their government, the failure of their religious structures, the loss of their friend, the shattering of their hope, the uncertainty of what’s to come.

This is the second Christian task in Saturday: Coming alongside others to ask questions that penetrate the times and pierce the soul, questions of social conscience and moral discernment. Down in Saturday, we are free to question the world up above, the one that allowed us to fall. Now is the time to see some things clearly that we’d rather not see. Now is the time to sit in the holy terror of a world undone. The men’s courage to ask questions gives me courage to ask my own: Are we willing to behold, as the pandemic burns away at our social order, the invisible ink of injustice written on every surface? Who, and where, is God when the church doors are closed?

Saturday is a land where idols lay shattered and strewn about. It is a place to lean toward one another and name the things we fear.

Finally, I join the woman in the graveyard-garden (John 20:11). So many of us will feel like Mary Magdalene this Easter Sunday, lingering alone at the sites of our pain, explicitly asked not to touch the ones we love. And we will weep. This is the third Christian task, to weep. We weep in order to stay tender, to cling to the power of compassion and our sensitivity to other lives.

Maybe, when we emerge from this long journey through Saturday, we will do so more mindful of the ones who never get to leave, the ones perpetually entombed. Maybe we will weep for those who wake every day in a prison cell and live under the sentence of death. Maybe we will care more about those sleeping alone on the streets or shuttered away in institutions. Maybe we will finally understand the desperation of creatures whose habitats we have shrunk to a barely sustainable acreage.

Though to us, readers with privileged knowledge of the story’s ending, these three acts — anointing, discerning, weeping — may constitute what William Stringfellow once called “tokens of the reality of the Resurrection,” they were not such tokens to the friends of Jesus. They were simply Saturday acts, things the human spirit was moved to do in defiance of despair. And, in being true Saturday acts, by their very honesty and agony they cleared the ground for what was to come.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the New Testament, a lone voice claims with surprising boldness that, on Saturday, “Jesus went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). You see, while we minister to one another in this dark place, it is God’s job to find us and to hurl us back from the brink of nothingness. It is God’s job to start things over again.

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