The Christ is dead; the corpse of
the Son of God lies on a cold slab in a suffocating, lightless tomb.
Holy Saturday is a difficult day to
keep holy. My parish marks it with morning prayer from the Liturgy of the
Hours, but most churches don’t do anything, which is certainly appropriate;
Jesus Christ is liturgically dead. And so I’ve taken to my own observances.
Last year after the Good Friday communion liturgy, my wife and I watched The
Passion of the Christ, and on Holy Saturday we kept things low-key while
listening to Bach’s Matthäus-Passion and Johannes-Passion as well as Mozart’s
and Verdi’s Requiems.
But life goes on. Our young kids
(almost 5 and 3) can’t help but play, sometimes cooperating, sometimes
protesting in shrill tones some grave injustice the other has perpetrated by
encroaching on (say) a Thomas the Tank Engine track layout. My mother will host
Easter dinner, and so we will prepare some food for that. And for many people,
even those who will be in Easter Sunday services tomorrow, Holy Saturday is
another Saturday filled with shopping, yardwork, fishing, and the like.
Holy Saturday started to hit me
differently a few years ago. I suspect it had to do with three major events
occurring within a period of several months. First, I turned 35, which meant my
life was half over, as I’d count myself blessed to make it to seventy. I began
to feel life was now downhill. Second, our son Hans was born, and as those of
you who are parents know, having children entails epistemological paradigm
shifts: we see the world differently. Third, just a few weeks after Hans’
birth, I buried my father. And so I came to the existential realization that
life was short and moving ever faster and that we play for keeps.
Sensitive now to the fragility of
human life and the grave responsibilities laid upon us by God and Nature and
newly alive to the joys and terrors of life in this beautiful and horrible
world as a member of a glorious and murderous race, Holy Saturday punched me in
They killed him. They really did.
Many Christians in modernity, I
think, have a conception of the crucifixion restricted to a legal version of
penal substitutionary atonement: Our problem is guilt, for which God must
punish us, but loving us and desiring to forgive us, God punishes Christ in our
True enough as far as it goes, but
when compared to classical soteriologies, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or
Protestant, it doesn’t go very far. For it leaves the horror of the human
condition outside of us, as this model concerns merely our legal status, and
thus leaves no remedy for the wretched realities ruining us.
What about sin as a condition
within us, in our very natures? What about the our four traditional enemies of
Sin, Death, Hell, and the Devil, those hypostasized forces which animate mortal
and demonic violence against us, often from within us?
Sin, Death, Hell, and the Devil
afflict us from within and without. Our problem isn’t only God’s posture of
wrath towards us, which can seem far away, terrible as it is. Our problem is
that the we and the World are both fallen and afflicted, evil within, evil
without, near us.
The cross isn’t just a component in
the economy of our salvation, something God needed to do to Christ to acquit
us. The cross also reveals the hatred of the human race towards God. They
killed him: God comes into the World in Jesus Christ, and Jew and Gentile
conspire to cooperate in killing God for reasons of convenience.
The World stands guilty of deicide.
And so on Holy Saturday I feel
generally sick to my stomach. The one man who could have helped us, we hammered
him to a cross. And that means two things: Deep down, I’m capable of murder and
I’m liable to being murdered. We mustn’t deceive
ourselves about our capacity for sin, and that of others.
Most people have a theologia
gloriae, a theology of glory in which we bypass the cross as we affirm
ourselves and affirm God for affirming us in a circle of moral therapeutic
deist bilge. True theology, as Luther so rightly and so often stressed, is a theologia
crucis, a theology of the cross in which God’s murderers are saved by God
through the very instrument of His murder. Our salvation cannot consist in
self-improvement; our salvation consists in our own crucifixion.
God doesn’t affirm us; God saves
But not yet, not today. Tomorrow.
We killed Him. Kyrie eleison.