Saturday, June 16, 2012

A challenging view of Holy Saturday

English: Skulls of victims from the Rwandan Ge...
English: Skulls of victims from the Rwandan Genocide found at the Nyamata Memorial. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This post is part of a short series on challenging people's views on major Christian themes associated with the liturgical calendar.

Included in this post are excerpts from a message authored by David Sylvester along with my own additions or comments.

Mr. Sylvester's letter starts of provocatively enough:
This weekend, the churches across the United States of America will fill up with people who identify themselves as Christians to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Let me see if I have this right: This was a man who counseled us to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemies.”

And this is in a country with the highest prison population in the world and a record number of inmates awaiting execution on death row;

A country that assassinates people at will, from drones flying high altitude, by push-button technology, without any legal process at all;

A country that launched an illegal war called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” that killed tens of thousands and has turned a million people into refugees;

A country that thinks owning a gun is a sign of freedom and independence and gun control infringes on “our rights.”

This weekend, the priests and preachers will proclaim the “Paschal mystery of salvation” in front of packed congregations. We Christians will join with Jesus as he celebrates his last supper with his disciples, washes their feet in a humble gesture of servanthood, then agonizes alone all night as he faces a rigged trial and unjust execution. We will kiss the Cross, the instrument of his torture and execution, and dedicate ourselves to “taking up our cross daily” and then give each other hugs over his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

You might disagree with me, but in my opinion, if we Christians left our churches on Sunday and followed Christ in action on Monday, the killing would stop that very day. In other words, it is a mockery of life, death and resurrection of Jesus to call this a Christian country.

The fact is that we Christians are only fooling ourselves. Jesus knew this would happen. He predicted that many Christians would be hypocrites, even the most fervent who preach and claim to heal and do what they think are “mighty works” in his name. To them, he would say: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21)

What explains this? How can we get the Christian way of life back on track? What must we do to stop these cheap and easy Hallmark Card versions of Easter?
The answer, in my opinion, is that we are avoiding the experience of Holy Saturday.

Mr. Sylvester continues with what serves as a reminder for those who know the story and as an introduction for those who do not.
This is the time that begins at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of Good Friday. The agony of the crucifixion is ending, sunlight fails, darkness descends, an earthquake splits rocks and “the veil of the temple is torn in two.” Jesus cries out in a loud voice: "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" And he breathes his last breath. His head falls forward. He is dead.
There is silence. Perhaps a gust of wind. A moment when time stands still. Those near the cross look once more. Yes, he is really dead. All that they expected collapses. There will be no overthrow of the Romans, no restoration of the kingdom of Israel, no magical solution to unendurable in life.

Instead, we must face the tomb, the winter of all hopes and dreams, the disintegration of all understanding. Comprehensibility itself becomes incomprehensible. The rational structures in the mind, the categories by which we interpret the ocean of sensations deluging us disappear. We are thrust into utter desolation and darkness, of despair and the triumph of the human creature at his and her worst. Civilizations crash into heaps of rubble. Rome is burned. Baghdad is sacked by the Mongols. Constantinople is burned by Crusaders. Ukrainian peasants burn Jewish villages. The screams and cries of the Holocaust in Germany and Poland echo to this very moment. The invisible drone leaves no sound for those who are incinerated beyond recognition.
Entering the Story

Let's stop for a second to unpack and reflect on this a little, to try to appreciate what is being shown in this story. Forget, for a moment, whether you are supposed to take the story literally or metaphorically or some other way. Just let that kind of "left-brain" analysis go. Go into suspension of disbelief and feel the story.

You are a Jew who has been living under imperial occupation and oppression, with your very leaders complicit and corrupted, hoping to strike bargains with their imperial masters "for the good of the people". Legions of troops march about the countryside, raping, stealing, and murdering. Resistance fighters and those suspected of aiding them are imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases executed in horrific fashion. You live in fear and anger, feeling helpless to make a difference for the better.

Then a charismatic healer and leader arises that speaks truth to power and who is immensely popular with the "every-man" type, the outcasts, and even many of the spiritual leaders of the day. Massive crowds form wherever he goes, and it looks like he might be able to lead people to real change. To fight corruption and abuse of power. He speaks from the tradition of the prophets who decried such institutional injustice, and he even stages an entry to Jerusalem to both parody the fanfare of an imperial entrance and to call up an image from these same prophets, riding into the city on a donkey. He is kind yet fearless. All through the celebrations of a holy week, he makes public speeches and even engages in acts of civil disobedience.

Then he is betrayed as he quietly leaves the city at night and quickly tried and sentenced before the masses can intervene. He is publicly crucified as a sign of imperial power to crush the spirits of those who had placed their hopes in him. Many of his lieutenants will eventually be captured and executed as well. In the midst of despair a light had appeared, but it was snuffed out and darkness had returned. The desolation of gaining hope and having it taken away feels far worse than the misery which has preceded it. How can anyone ever believe in the light again?

This desolation is an inner wound, a mortal wound of the spirit, faced by those who have seen atrocity, the senseless tragedy which scars and kills at will, whether by natural disaster or human-made horror. It is the numbing incomprehension which has no quick and easy answer, against which platitudes both religious and secular sound irresponsibly cruel.

Empathy for suffering

Mr. Sylvester goes on and mentions a tragedy that had occurred at the time of his writing (fill in your own recent local, national, or global tragedy in the break below). And don't think that this kind of introspection is only for Christians. The lessons of Holy Week have a universal character:

Do we Christians feel this Holy Saturday in our bones? Are we so accustomed to being the people behind the trigger of the rifle, or pushing the button to release the bomb that we no longer feel the horror we inflict? Do we read about this tomb time in the newspapers and believe it only happens to other people, in faraway countries, and certainly it can never happen to us?

Perhaps you think I exaggerate when I say that we live suspended over this abyss of horror every day of our lives, an abyss that can crack open at any second during the most mundane moments of our lives.

Immediately, our minds sought rational explanations. We were avoiding feeling Holy Saturday. We were searching for an explanation that would push ourselves out of the abyss of this world -- ha’olam hazeh -- and reweave the veil of normalcy that had been torn in two. We needed to restore the placid, predictable, rational and understandable surface of life. Holy Saturday is too terrifying to contemplate; it’s a moment when rationality itself shatters like glass at a sub-arcic temperature.

Yet the veil cannot be rewoven and the glass must remain shattered. [These events] are not unusual at all... There have been many throughout the world. There have been massacres, large and small, and then, catastrophic massacres of entire civilizations.

The question is not, “How do we make sense of this?” No, this is beyond all sense. The question is: “What is our relationship to this aspect of reality?” What is my personal relationship with the fact that I can step outside to pause midsentence and be shot, kidnapped, attacked by a random, crazed person, or in the more modern version, assassinated for a revenge killing for something some of my race or nationality or religion did.
Here we have a description of the mind's effort to rationalize and normalize its sense of the world after exposure to news  of such an experience. This can take many forms: giving an explanation of the forces and factors which led to the event, briefly giving money or donating time or items to a charity to feel one had "done something", shrugging off the news as just a normal part of life, and various forms of diversion and distraction.

This kind of turning away is not so easy for those more intimately touched by tragedy, and it is not supposed to be so easy for those who follow a figure who proclaimed and lived solidarity with those living with such tragedy. By avoiding an openness to empathy with those who suffer, we simultaneously cut off our aspiration and our capacity for compassion. We stand and stare at the horror and are unable to respond.

Referring back to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday Mr. Sylvester picks up on this as something that made the ministry and example of Jesus of Nazareth so authentic and effective to those around him and to those who hear about it centuries later:
Knowing all this was coming, Jesus did not flinch or turn away. He did not produce platitudes about how it would all work in out in the end or spin out empty philosophical or theological slogans.

No, in Gethsemane, Jesus stared into the approaching horror of Holy Saturday and most courageously of all, he felt it. He didn’t lie to himself; in his innermost parts, he did not want to die, even if it would “save the world form its sins.” And he begged God to let him off the hook, to “take this cup from me.” He sweated blood. He was entirely alone, facing the horror...
Alone, Mr. Sylvester points out, just as billions of others who have stared into an abyss from which their seemed to be no escape. On Good Friday, one the more famous quotes attributed to Jesus comes from the beginning of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Holy Saturday

Yet that is still Good Friday when Jesus, a symbol of hope, was shamed and bloodied but still clinging however tenuously to life. Holy Saturday is worse.  It is a world torn apart, with no hope. It is that moment when everything you have trusted and believed in seems to have evaporated. This is the desolation mentioned above, the mortal wounding of the human spirit. It is the point at which one cannot keep going, when there is no reason to try.

Holy Saturday is the sting of slavery's whip and the tears of genocide. It is the grieving mother standing over the tortured body of her child. It is that moment when one asks, "Where is God? How could God let this happen?" It is when people wonder, "Why do these things happen? What did anyone do deserve this?"

And there is no answer.

There is no rhyme or reason.

No response.

Just silence.

Holy Saturday is the end of casual faith. It breaks the false triumphalism that has become associated with much of Christianity, where everyone "just knows" that everything will turn out OK in the end. It crushes the notion that one can simply passively listen to the Passion narrative without personally experiencing its core elements and have any real knowledge of or part in Easter.

There is no Easter without Holy Saturday. You cannot find the light in the heart of the darkness without entering into the darkness yourself. Camus could not have found an indomitable spring anywhere except the  depth of winter. Anything else is a cheap counterfeit. The cries of "Alleluia, Christ is risen" are hollow. Those words ought to signify the follower having gone through their own Holy Week and emerged themselves as Christ. Faith isn't about being a passive observer.

Mr. Sylvester concludes:
Unless we are willing to face the horror of the incomprehensible in the human experience, we have no access to the subsequent miracle and joy of new life. If our minds seal over and we re-weave the veil, if we push back from the abyss and impose on reality our order, our own understanding, we become safe from the horror of Holy Saturday. But we’ve also insulated ourselves from the real joy at Easter. Our minds have safely pushed back from the brink of horror, and we’ve also pushed back from the brink of believing the possibility of a true resurrection.

My own parting thought: Might Christians and those whose lives they touch be best served by recalling themes of Holy Week every week and not just once per year during the official celebrations?

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