Living Holy Saturday

When I was in college – when Facebook profiles still fit on one page and I tended toward a bleaker spirituality – my religious views on Facebook read: “We live in a Holy Saturday.” My point, I think, was to highlight the “already-not-yet” nature of Jesus’ beloved community, the waiting and unsureness we all feel when we are seeking God in the world. Today, it would be more accurate to say I believe we migrate through Holy Saturday, again and again, as part of our wrestling with the Divine. And right now, I think, many of us are camped in Holy Saturday, waiting, alone, not sure how to be hopeful.

I’ve often imagined what it would have felt like to be one of the women who followed Jesus, waiting for a whole sabbath day to anoint his body, sitting observantly still on the outside but tangled with fear and confusion and shock within. I’ve imagined a sort of heavy grayness, even on Holy Saturdays when the sun shines brightly. What would it feel like to believe that God had be executed, tortured, killed? To live without even an echo of resurrection?

When I walked to my congregation’s meeting house yesterday, preparing to set up the Zoom broadcast for our Good Friday service, I felt a profound sense of unreality. I couldn’t make my mind remember that I would be in the sanctuary alone, that my worship collaborators would be visible only through a screen, that every house I passed was filled with people sheltering in place, that New York had started digging mass graves for virus victims. I still felt numb when the service ended. I put away the worship elements in an empty building, and when I got home and climbed into bed, I tried to imagine what Easter could be. I cried. And I waited.

I was hoping, by the time I got to this point in writing this post, that I would have something profound to say. But I don’t. I just have emotions calling out past the numbness for expression. Anger at systems that have not prioritized the vulnerable. Grief for the many little normalcies my life has lost. Sadness for the people dying and mourning alone.  Fear as I wonder what parts of our world will be resilient. There is no other call in this moment but the call to stillness, to sit with the reality of the world as fully as I can. The women who followed Jesus knew that their task with the jars of spices would wait. They all could wait.

Most of the theological explanations for what Jesus did on Saturday have focused on the “harrowing of hell,” a sort of final victory for Christ over the death-dealing powers of Satan. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus “descended into hell” as its only description of what happens on this strange Saturday. No one actually knows what happened. And knowing what happened, I think, is not the point. All we can know – what can give us consolation – is that whatever happened, Jesus was present in this day, in this unreal, isolated, waiting day. And Jesus is here with us still.

Passing Peace

It’s happened hundreds of times. When the presider said the words, “The peace of Christ be with you,” we all responded, “And also with you,” and then we stood up to pass the peace to one another. “Peace be with you.” “And with you.” Over and over, grasping each other’s hands, giving one another a hug, gently smiling, reaching out. It happens this way every week on Wednesday evenings in my seminary chapel.

But this week, just an hour earlier, our buildings and the entire campus surrounding us had been on lock-down. Our doors had been shut and secured. Office lights had been turned off. Some were crammed together in a basement study room; others were crouched behind metal file cabinets. Those of us in the chapel closed our doors and continued to prepare for worship, unsure if anyone but ourselves would be able to come. I removed myself from the musicians practicing so that I could listen for the sound of approaching gunshots.

I’d received the email as the worship group rehearsed – there were reports of a shooter; everyone on campus should shelter in place. It was an hour before we were given the all clear, though we were told that one building remained under lock-down. At the time we began our worship service, we didn’t yet know that the whole situation had been prompted by a hoax report. So when helicopters continued to circle as we sang our opening song, and when sirens blared by as we said the Prayers of the People, I felt a prolonged sense of anxiety.

Then, near the beginning of the Communion liturgy, after the confession and pardon, we engaged in that ancient ritual of passing the peace. In that moment, it felt like a subversive act, a site of resistance to the atmosphere of violence we all breath. “Peace be with you,” said with both concern and sincerity. “And also with you,” spoken as we met each other eyes and touched each other’s hands.

Earlier, in her sermon on John 12:20-26, Dr. Nancy Bedford had exhorted us to look for Jesus in resistance to the “worldly” ways of empire and to follow in Jesus’ paradoxical and life-giving way. And even earlier in the day, thousands of teenagers had peacefully left their classrooms and demanded gun law reform, even in the midst of adults’ reprimands. Peace is not easy.

The Christian call to practice peace in the midst of what Jesus calls “the world” – the network of power centers that rule through military and economic might – is not new. The American worship of war and weapons is not the first imperial force Christians have had to contend with. When Jesus said the words “Peace be with you” in his resurrection appearances, he was offering a peace that flew in the face of Rome’s militarized “Pax Romana,” which ruled through subjugation and false security. Christ invites us into his radical peace, and it is not peace of passivity or of resignation. It is an active peace that reaches out in the midst of fear and violence and says, “I see Christ’s presence in you. I extend Jesus to you. I have chosen to give my life for your well-being.”

The later news that the report of an active shooter had been hoax does not change the poignancy of our passing the peace nor the world’s need for our witness. We still live in a profoundly broken world. We live in a world where, as my colleague Alexa points out, it was reasonable and likely for us to believe that someone had obtained a gun, shot their girlfriend, and intended to do further harm with it.  We live in a world where others have had to go through a similar experience, whether hiding in their schools from a gun or in their neighborhoods from a bomb.  We live in a world where violence is a punchline.

For all these reasons and more, Christ continues to call us to give our lives for the cause of peace that passes all understanding. Perhaps that is why we pass the peace every Sunday – to turn this ancient liturgy into muscle memory, so that our practice of peace will always be stronger than the world’s way of violence.


Thursdays in the Lectionary – When They Were All Together in One Place

This week I’m at a the Forum for Theological Exploration‘s Christian Leadership Forum, and I’m part of the team preparing the Fourm’s times of worship.  Because Pentecost is this coming Sunday, our team decided to focus on the coming of the Holy Spirit and the sometimes difficult waiting we do in anticipation of that arrival.  We read this litany at our opening worship this morning, and it was my hope in writing it that it would prepare our hearts for the often surprising activity of the Spirit.      

When they were all together in one place, God of the unexpected, your people had no way of knowing what would happen next.

We have come together to be shaken out of our complacency.

When they were all together in one place, unimaginable God, you met your disciples there, right where they had gathered.

We have come together with empty hands and tired hearts, knowing that our desire to be present is enough.

When they were all together in one place, untamable God, you breathed into their beings a holy disorder, a sacred cacophony, a resurrected life that baffles, confuses, and invites us into new ways of knowing and being.

We have come together as people still learning how to let go of our plans and expectations to make way for your wild grace.

But God, we so often forget that the miracle of Pentecost came fifty days after the miracle of Easter. There were fifty days between an encounter with the empty tomb and the formation of a Spirit-filled community. We are impatient people, and we fill the quite spaces of our lives with attempts to capture you in words, in numbers, in progress reports and projected outcomes.

Give us humble spirits and fresh eyes to pay attention to your surprising acts of justice and mercy.

God, when we seek the presence of your Holy Spirit, you call us to gather together from our places of difference and listen—to you, to each other, to the longings you stir in us.

We have come together to wait.

Come Holy Spirit.