On Holy Saturday we enter into the mystery. Today we contemplate Jesus, there in the tomb, dead. In that tomb, he is dead, exactly the way each of us will be dead. We don’t easily contemplate dying, but we rarely contemplate being dead. I have had the blessed experience of being with a number of people who have died, of arriving at a hospital shortly after someone has died, of attending an autopsy, and of praying with health sciences students over donated bodies in gross anatomy class. These were powerful experiences because they all brought me face-to-face with the mystery of death itself. With death, life ends. Breathing stops, and in an instant, the life of this person has ended. And, in a matter of hours, the body becomes quite cold and life-less – dramatic evidence, to our senses, that this person no longer exists. All that is left is this decaying shell that once held his or her life.
Death is our ultimate fear. Everything else we fear, every struggle we have, is some taste of, some chilling approach to, the experience of losing our life. This fear is responsible for so much of our lust and greed, so much of our denial and arrogance, so much of our silly clinging to power, so much of our hectic and anxiety-driven activity. It is the one, inevitable reality we all will face. There is not enough time, money, joy, fulfillment, success. Our physical beauty and strength, our mental competency and agility, all that we have and use to define ourselves, slip away from us with time. Our lives are limited. Our existence, in every way we can comprehand it, comes to an end. We will all die. In a matter of time, all that will be left of any of us is a decomposing body.
Today is a day to soberly put aside the blinders we have about the mystery of death and our fear of it. Death is very real and its approach holds great power in our lives. The “good news” we are about to celebrate has no real power in our lives unless we have faced the reality of death. To contemplate Jesus’ body, there in that tomb, is to look our death in the face, and it is preparation for hearing the Gospel with incredible joy. That we are saved from the ultimate power of sin and of death itself comes to us as a great relief, as a tremendous liberation. If Jesus lives, you and I will live! The mystery of death, which we contemplate today, will be overcome – we will live forever!
Daily Archives: March 30, 2013
In the centuries after Christianity emerged from the catacombs, the Church of Rome made an annual Lenten pilgrimage to a series of “station churches” at which the Bishop of Rome led his flock in prayer over the remains of one or another of the early martyrs. On the morning of Holy Saturday, however, the Church of the first millennium kept “station” not at a particular basilica made holy by the relics of martyrs and the prayers of those who have venerated them, but in her religious imagination. There was no Mass during the day, as there was no Mass on Good Friday. In the evening, as the sun set, the Roman Church would gather at the papal cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran (“mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world”) to await the dawn of Resurrection. But Holy Saturday itself was a moment to enter reflectively into the divine rest.
”¦Suddenly all of them standing around the gallows know it: he is gone. Immeasurable emptiness (not solitude) streams forth from the hanging body. Nothing but this fantastic emptiness is any longer at work here. The world with its shape has perished; it tore like a curtain from top to bottom, without making a sound. It fainted away, turned to dust, burst like a bubble. There is nothing more but nothingness itself.
The world is dead.
Love is dead.
God is dead.
Everything that was, was a dream dreamt by no one. The present is all past. The future is nothing. The hand has disappeared from the clock’s face. No more struggle between love and hate, between life and death. Both have been equalized, and love’s emptying out has become the emptiness of hell. One has penetrated the other perfectly. The nadir has reached the zenith: nirvana.
Was that lightning?
Was the form of a Heart visible in the boundless void for a flash as the sky was rent, drifting in the whirlwind through the worldless chaos, driven like a leaf?
Or was it winged, propelled and directed by its own invisible wings, standing as lone survivor between the soulless heavens and the perished earth?
Chaos. Beyond heaven and hell. Shapeless nothingness behind the bounds of creation.
Is that God?
God died on the Cross.
Is that death?
No dead are to be seen.
Is it the end?
Nothing that ends is any longer there.
Is it the beginning?
The beginning of what? In the beginning was the Word. What kind of word? What incomprehensible, formless, meaningless word? But look: What is this light glimmer that wavers and begins to take form in the endless void? It has neither content nor contour.
A nameless thing, more solitary than God, it emerges out of pure emptiness. It is no one. It is anterior to everything. Is it the beginning? It is small and undefined as a drop. Perhaps it is water. But it does not flow. It is not water. It is thicker, more opaque, more viscous than water. It is also not blood, for blood is red, blood is alive, blood has a loud human speech. This is neither water nor blood. It is older than both, a chaotic drop.
Slowly, slowly, unbelievably slowly the drop begins to quicken. We do not know whether this movement is infinite fatigue at death’s extremity or the first beginning – of what?
Quiet, quiet! Hold the breath of your thoughts! It’s still much too early in the day to think of hope. The seed is still much too weak to start whispering about love. But look there: it is indeed moving, a weak, viscous flow. It’s still much too early to speak of a wellspring.
It trickles, lost in the chaos, directionless, without gravity. But more copiously now. A wellspring in the chaos. It leaps out of pure nothingness, it leaps out of itself.
It is not the beginning of God, who eternally and mightily brings himself into existence as Life and Love and triune Bliss.
It is not the beginning of creation, which gently and in slumber slips out of the Creator’s hands.
It is a beginning without parallel, as if Life were arising from Death, as if weariness (already such weariness as no amount of sleep could ever dispel) and the uttermost decay of power were melting at creation’s outer edge, were beginning to flow, because flowing is perhaps a sign and a likeness of weariness which can no longer contain itself, because everything that is strong and solid must in the end dissolve into water. But hadn’t it – in the beginning – also been born from water? And is this wellspring in the chaos, this trickling weariness, not the beginning of a new creation?
The magic of Holy Saturday.
The chaotic fountain remains directionless. Could this be the residue of the Son’s love which, poured out to the last when every vessel cracked and the old world perished, is now making a path for itself to the Father through the glooms of nought?
Or, in spite of it all, is this love trickling on in impotence, unconsciously, laboriously, towards a new creation that does not yet even exist, a creation which is still to be lifted up and given shape? Is it a protoplasm producing itself in the beginning, the first seed of the New Heaven and the New Earth?
The spring leaps up even more plenteously. To be sure, it flows out of a wound and is like the blossom and fruit of a wound; like a tree it sprouts up from this wound. But the wound no longer causes pain. The suffering has been left far behind as the past origin and previous source of today’s wellspring.
What is poured out here is no longer a present suffering, but a suffering that has been concluded”“no longer now a sacrificing love, but a love sacrificed.
Only the wound is there: gaping, the great open gate, the chaos, the nothingness out of which the wellspring leaps forth. Never again will this gate be shut. Just as the first creation arose ever anew out of sheer nothingness, so, too, this second world – still unborn, still caught up in its first rising – will have its sole origin in this wound, which is never to close again.
In the future, all shape must arise out of this gaping void, all wholeness must draw its strength from the creating wound.
High-vaulted triumphal Gate of Life! Armored in gold, armies of graces stream out of you with fiery lances. Deep-dug Fountain of Life! Wave upon wave gushes out of you inexhaustible, ever-flowing, billows of water and blood baptizing the heathen hearts, comforting the yearning souls, rushing over the deserts of guilt, enriching over-abundantly, overflowing every heart that receives it, far surpassing every desire.
”“Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
HOW life and death in Thee
Thou hadst a virgin womb
A Joseph did betroth
”“Richard Crashaw (1613-1649)
I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been”“if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you”“you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.
”“C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
O God, whose loving kindness is infinite, mercifully hear our prayers; and grant that as in this life we are united in the mystical body of thy Church, and in death are laid in holy ground with the sure hope of resurrection; so at the last day we may rise to the life immortal, and be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The church is dark now. The altar is stripped and bare. Some are getting up and leaving in silence. Others remain kneeling, looking into the darkness. Holy Saturday is ahead, the most quiet day of the year. The silence of that silent night, holy night, the night when God was born was broken by the sounds of a baby, a mother’s words of comfort and angels in concert. Holy Saturday, by contrast, is the sound of prefect silence. Yesterday’s mockery, the good thief’s prayer, the cry of dereliction””all that is past now. Mary has dried her tears, and the whole creation is still, waiting for what will happen next.
Some say that on Holy Saturday Jesus went to hell in triumph, to free the souls long imprisoned there. Others say he descended into a death deeper than death, to embrace in his love even the damned. We do not know. Scripture, tradition and pious writings provide hints and speculations, but about this most silent day it is perhaps best to observe the silence. One day I expect he will tell us all about it. When we are able to understand what we cannot now even understand why we cannot understand.
–Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)
In this empty hallway, there’s nothing expected of us at this moment. The work is out of our hands, and all we can do is wait, breathe, look around. People sometimes feel like this when they’ve been up all night with someone who’s seriously ill or dying, or when they’ve been through a non-stop series of enormously demanding tasks. A sort of peace, but more a sort of ”˜limbo’, an in-between moment. For now, nothing more to do; tired, empty, slightly numbed, we rest for a bit, knowing that what matters is now happening somewhere else.
”“Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who as on this day didst rest in the sepulchre, and didst thereby sanctify the grave to be a bed of hope to thy people: Make us so to abound in sorrow for our sins, which were the cause of thy passion, that when our bodies rest in the dust, our souls may live with thee; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.
Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were graven in the rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then from my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
DROP, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.
O God, whose blessed Son endured the loneliness and darkness of the cross, that we might enjoy eternal fellowship with thee: Grant that amidst life’s shadows we may know that we are never forsaken, but that we are ever walking in the light of thy countenance; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.
“Here the hangman stops his cart:
Now the best of friends must part.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live, lads, and I will die.
“Oh, at home had I but stayed
”˜Prenticed to my father’s trade,
Had I stuck to plane and adze,
I had not been lost, my lads.
“Then I might have built perhaps
Gallows-trees for other chaps,
Never dangled on my own,
Had I left but ill alone.
“Now, you see, they hang me high,
And the people passing by
Stop to shake their fists and curse;
So ’tis come from ill to worse.
“Here hang I, and right and left
Two poor fellows hang for theft:
All the same’s the luck we prove,
Though the midmost hangs for love.
“Comrades all, that stand and gaze,
Walk henceforth in other ways;
See my neck and save your own:
Comrades all, leave ill alone.
“Make some day a decent end,
Shrewder fellows than your friend.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live lads, and I will die.”
”“A. E. Housman (1859-1936)