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The Saturday condition

13 April 2017

The nothingness of Easter Eve has more to say than we allow, observes Peter Townley


Forlorn: women before Christ’s sepulchre, an engraving published in Le Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1845

Forlorn: women before Christ’s sepulchre, an engraving published in Le Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1845

THE events of Holy Week and Easter should properly pro­vide the framework for our Christian lives, but, perversely, Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve, is often given little thought or attention.

Holy Saturday is a day of waiting as we remember Christ lying in the tomb. Looking at this day with hind­sight, through resurrection-tinted spectacles, it is hard to imagine the profound sense of be­­reave­ment, devastation, and dashed hope felt by the first disciples.

For most of us, perhaps, Holy Saturday is just another day of noise — our attention-sapping smart­phones remain on, and we hunt for bargains in the Easter sales. In our rushed, technology-driven lives, per­haps we are no longer well equipped for the pause that Holy Saturday requires of us.

And yet, in his seminal book Real Presences, George Steiner writes of Holy Saturday as a day that holds within it much of the human ex­peri­ence: “There is one particular day in Western history about which neither histori­cal record nor myth nor Scripture make report. It is a Saturday. . . Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffer­ing, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.

“In the face of the torture of a child, of the death of love which is Friday, even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless. In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.

“The apprehensions and figura­tions in the play of metaphysical imagining, in the poem and the music, which tell of pain and of hope, of the flesh which is said to taste of ash and of the spirit which is said to have the savour of fire, are always Sabbatarian. They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?”

The theologian Nicholas Lash agrees. “There is the sense that all prayer and expecta­tion, all keeping of createdness in mind, occur on Saturday, in darkness illuminated from the pain of God, in watch­fulness for the rising of the sun, in patience.”


THESE thoughts, the ability to under­stand the “Saturday condition” of our lives, may help us to reflect on — and perhaps have more patience with — the many situations in the world which we struggle to comprehend. We are holding our breath in these days of uncertainty after the European ref­erendum, as we wait to see how Brexit will affect our country and the rest of the Euro­pean commun­ity, and as we come to terms with what it means to live in a world of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” after the presid­ential elections in the United States.

Likewise, within the Church of England, recent events at the Gener­al Synod, and in the diocese of Sheffield, may need to be met with patient reflection rather than knee-jerk reactions and quick fixes.

In the silence of Holy Saturday, we also find the paradox of Christ’s work — the mystery at the heart of our faith — in the fact that the tomb is the end of Christ’s life, but also the place of his triumph. This tension is captured by the German theologian Paul Tillich, who writes of a witness at the Nuremberg war trials who spoke of escaping the gas chambers by hiding with other Jews in a cemetery.

While they were there, a young woman gave birth with assistance from an aged grave­digger. As the baby was born, the gravedigger was heard to pray: “Great God, hast thou finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah him­self can be born in a grave?”


THE great Matthaean scholar John Fenton is reported to have told his stu­dents at Oxford that “the most obvious characteristic of God is his silence. He does not cough, or mutter, or shuffle his feet to reassure us that he is there.”

But the silence of Holy Saturday does not mean that nothing was happening. Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us that if Holy Saturday is about anything, it is about Christ’s utter God-forsakenness and the com­pletion of his kenosis (self-emptying), and therefore the bound­less reach of his high-priestly ministry.

We live in the hush of our “Sat­urday condition”, between these twin poles of Good Friday and Easter Day, and yet we begin to hear the first sounds of hope as Easter Day approaches. Paradoxically, this day of quiet expectation is expressed liturgically in many Orthodox churches on Holy Saturday morn­ing by loud drumming on the pews, the ringing of bells, the scattering of rose petals, and the stamping of feet to symbolise the transforming Christ who breaks down the gates of Hades.

Out of the silence and expectant waiting, new life is born in a grave­yard. As the Negro spiritual “Roll away that stone” by Richard M. Hadden has it: “Oh yes, jus’ roll away that stone, brother, And let Lord Jesus out. Open your heart, brother, And let Lord Jesus in!”


The Ven. Peter Townley is the Arch­deacon of Pontefract, in the diocese of Leeds.

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