Suzanne Bossert

Holy Saturday

Between the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, something happened.  The Greeks have two words for time: chronos, the chronological movement of time, measured by clocks and calendars, and kairos, the in-between time...

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The Westminster John Knox Press Essays

From the “Connections,” “Feasting on the Word,” and “Feasting on the Gospel” book collections, (2012-2018)

Between the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, something happened.  The Greeks have two words for time: chronos, the chronological movement of time, measured by clocks and calendars, and kairos, the in-between time—the white space between words, the pauses between breaths. Holy Saturday, although part of the chronological sweep of Holy Week, is a kairos-style “in-between” time. Where was Jesus the day we now call Holy Saturday? What was God doing? Why was there a pause before resurrection?

Gospel accounts, scalded into silence by the calamity of Golgotha, hardly register any detail at all. This absence in scripture makes it tempting to dismiss Holy Saturday as a kind of odd intermission, a break before the final, glorious act that is Easter. Restless, we wait. In the back row a phone chirps. We shift in our seats. Then, in the midst of our listless Saturday waiting, the lectionary detonates in our midst . . . wailing, chaos, sweat, dirt, hammering pulse, and the roaring fear that God is gone.  Lamentations 3:1-9, Jeremiah’s great requiem for a city in ruins, takes the stage to give voice to Holy Saturday with devastating power.

The muscular poetry of Lamentations was, of course, written as a dirge not for Christ but for Jerusalem, destroyed centuries earlier at the hands of invading Babylonians.  But the incorporation of this Hebrew pericope into our Holy Week liturgy affords us a far deeper emotional experience of Holy Saturday than anything found in the New Testament. Indeed, the use of Lamentations brings the heartache of the day into sharp relief, offering us a stirring portrait of profound sorrow.  Through the use of fragmented sentences and unbalanced meter—“…he has driven and brought me/into darkness without any light” (Lam.3:2)—the writer employs a sense of language seemingly “broken off in grief.”[1]  The effect moves us away from a simple intellectual affirmation of Easter and closer to an experience of the heart. Likewise, the acrostic frame of Lamentations invites emotional exploration by creating a kind of “material, physical container” for the ideas of the narrative, a narrative device which helps “control and contain” the suffering and hurt that engulfed the Israelites.[2]  In the same way, the use of Lamentations at Easter helps create a space for Christian believers to process their own witness of Jesus’ suffering.

 The practical import of this idea came to mind recently while I was walking my dog in my neighborhood. We happened upon the demolition of a house nearby, the razing of a small wooden residence. Within 24 hours, the construction company put up a fence around the site, a demarcation which provided boundaries for the work of raising a new structure. For Christians, Holy Saturday can function as a kind of worksite, a place where we are invited to acknowledge the yawning absence of what once was (so acutely resembling an empty grave) as we await the pouring out of a new foundation. 

In fact, the “worksite” presented by Lamentations in our lectionary can significantly open us to the exploration of the complex theological import of this extraordinary final week of Christ’s earthly existence. Theologian Sally A. Brown talks about the lament form as having three primary functions: (a) the critical-prophetic, which asks the complex questions about the nature and origin of violence, (b) the theological-interrogatory, which wants to know where God is during times of suffering, and (c) the pastoral, wherein we are invited to “rely on God and the community to carry forth hope on our behalf when we ourselves have no hope in us.”[3]  This model is helpful because it rightly alludes to the complexity of suffering. It can be so utterly discomforting to think about the implications of Jesus’ death—especially the torture he endured—that we tend to skip right past the difficult parts, merely celebrating that “something” happened that is apparently good news indeed. 

Two years ago a member of my congregation lost multiple family members in a tragic accident. I have accompanied her on the journey of mourning, and we talked recently about the effect of reading Lamentations. She told me about a moment in the raw beginning, when her grief was so unbearable that she had the feeling of hitting rock bottom. Everything was stripped away, all the superficial ideas of life, all the things that people say to try to make sense out of the senseless. She said that in that barren place beyond all words, she suddenly had the realization that she was alone with God. She was driving a car, and she felt the bedrock presence of God’s Spirit.

“My heart is broken,” she cried aloud, “…my soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is…” (Lam. 3:17).  God answered with utter silence, the kind that sounds like truth. My friend felt consoled by the silence, because it seemed to go beyond trying to explain the unexplainable. She felt that God simply understood, enduring her grief with her. 

Maybe God understands better than we imagine. This begs a startling Midrash musing: what if Holy Saturday was not originally planned? Perhaps the extra day after Good Friday was needed because God was plunged into mourning just like the rest of us—the death of the Son was too much even for Abba. Perhaps all of heaven was rocked back into traumatized immobility when the nails were pounded into those innocent palms.  

Dead silence. The ripeness of the in-between, the crucible in which things are torn down, and things are raised up.  My grieving friend said, “At a certain point, there is nothing left to say. You just decide to keep walking forward with God.”  After the worst imaginable strikes and scorches all the earth, somehow we pass through the holy kairos time of Saturday, waiting sometimes in vain for explanations to our suffering, knowing only that it is not the end of the story. You just have to keep going forward.  

________

[1]  F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Lamentations,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1167.

[2] Dobbs-Allsopp, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1168.

[3] Sally A. Brown, “When Lament Shapes the Sermon,” in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, Sally A. Brown and Patrick D. Miller, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 33.Good Friday

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