Silence in the face of the mystery
Why Holy Saturday may be a day for us right now. By Steve Holmes
In the 15 years I’ve been in membership at St Andrews Baptist Church, we have marked Holy Week more and more intentionally and seriously. Twelve years ago my wife Heather began a deliberately all-age Good Friday service; she had just taken on leadership of our junior church, and was concerned that our children were led from the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday to Easter resurrection with no account of what happened between. Over the next few years Andrew Rollinson arrived as our pastor and led us to add a Maundy Thursday communion service with a very distinctive character, and then daily evening meetings Monday to Wednesday.
For some years now, then, Holy Saturday has been the only day of Holy Week when we have not gathered for worship.
In this, we are in some ways following Western liturgical tradition; Holy Saturday is properly a pause, a pregnant waiting for Easter dawn and the celebration of the resurrection. Sacramental worship, at least, was banned except in urgent situations (the last rites could be administered to the dying).
Silence seems to be the traditional way to keep Holy Saturday.
And this lack of activity follows the gospel accounts. ‘On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment’ (Lk. 23:56); Matthew and Mark are even briefer: ‘When the sabbath was over…’ (Mk 16:1); ‘After the sabbath…’ (Mt. 28:1); in John, the day is passed over in silence between chapters 19 and 20.
The Bible is silent about what happened on Holy Saturday.
We can imagine, though. Mother Mary and the others wanting to tend Jesus’ body in the traditional ways; Peter and the others, frightened, ashamed at having fled—and in Peter’s case denied. All are forbidden from travel, scared, wondering where God is as their world has been turned upside down.
Holy Saturday might be a day for us right now.
We want to be active in service out of love for Jesus, as Mary and the others did, but we are forbidden from doing the only things we know how to do.
We play over in our minds things we said or did before everything suddenly changed, as Peter and the others no doubt did, wishing we could go back and do and be differently.
We wonder, as they all must have done, how and when—or if—this present crisis will end, and what our lives and the world will look like in future.
God is silent. As silent as the tomb.
According to some streams of Christian tradition, God is nonetheless at work, at work through Jesus, indeed. The two references in 1Pt. to Jesus preaching to ‘spirits in prison’ (3:19) and to the gospel being ‘proclaimed even to the dead’ (4:6) led, with other texts, to a belief that Jesus entered into hell after His death, and bewared His resurrection, and broke its power, freeing the spirits of the righteous who had lived before his time. In the Greek Orthodox Holy Saturday liturgy, ascribed to St Basil of Caesarea, at a certain moment the priest scatters leaves across the floor of the church, symbolising the shattered gates of hell.
There are other ways of reading 1Pt., and, although the Creed teaches that Jesus ‘descended into hell’ before His resurrection, it is possible to read that, as Calvin did, as a reference to Him experiencing the just penalty of sin on the cross. Some of us may feel that the harrowing of hell is a myth with no real basis in Scripture.
There is a temptation as a theologian at this point to wade in and try to end the argument on one side or the other. But I wonder if the silences of Holy Saturday do not invite us into a different posture, to a reverent, confident, and faithful agnosticism?
God is at work—God is at work through Jesus—faith compels us to assert that, and to assert it confidently. We might not, however, be so confident that we can discern how God is at work.
Of all the great doctrines of the Christian faith, the atonement is the one least defined by creeds and catechisms. That Christ’s life, death, and resurrection saves us from all the powers of sin and death and hell is asserted boldly and loudly and repeatedly, but how this happens is met with silence. There are many carefully-worked through theological accounts of atonement—in The Shape of Soteriology, John McIntyre offers 13 (from memory—my copy of the book is locked down in my office at work…), and I could add others to his list—but no major dogmatic statement has either declared one to be correct, or (with the sole exception, I think, of C17th Reformed confessions repudiating Grotius) declared another one to be unacceptable.
It is not that we cannot think profitably theologically about such questions—I have written often enough on the atonement, and been involved, albeit peripherally, in at least one rather public dispute on the matter. But the greatest mistake we can make is to pretend to have comprehended the full mystery of salvation. When, all for love’s sake, God discovers not only what it is to be human, but what it is to die, our words can only police the boundaries of the mystery.
In the silences of Holy Saturday, God is at work in Jesus, defeating death, breaking down the gates of hell, but it would be a mistake to claim precipitously to understand how God is at work, what God is doing. We do best to keep silence in the face of the mystery, to wait to see what unimagined miracle Easter morn will bring.
Holy Saturday may be a day for us right now.
Steve Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of St Andrews, and
Principal of St Mary's College
This is the latest in a series of theological and biblical reflections from Baptists for Holy Week and Easter
Image | Charl Christiani | Creationswap
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