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 the gut.
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 place.
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 us.
But not yet, not today. Tomorrow.
We killed Him. Kyrie eleison.
[Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on CWR on March 30, 2013.]