Prettyfeather placed two buffalo-head nickels on the countertop for her Holy Saturday purchase: smoked ham hocks; two for a nickel. In the descending hierarchy of Holy Saturday foods, ham hocks were at the bottom.

Large hickory-smoked hams held center position in the displays in my father's butcher shop. Colorful cardboard cutouts provided by salesmen from the meat-packing companies of Armour, Hormel, and Silverbow all showed variations on a theme: a father at an Easter Sunday dinner table carving a ham, surrounded by an approving wife and scrubbed, expectant children.

Off to the side of these displays were stacks of the smaller and cheaper picnic hams (though a picnic ham is not, properly speaking, a ham at all, but the shoulder of the pig). There were no company-supplied pictures, nor even brand names on them. On Holy Saturday customers crowded into our store, responding to the sale signs painted on the plate-glass windows fronting Main Street and sorting themselves into upper and lower socio-economic strata: the affluent buying honey-cured, hickory-smoked hams, and the less-than-affluent buying unadjectived picnics.

Prettyfeather was the only person I ever remember buying ham hocks—gristly on the inside and leathery on the outside, but smoked and therefore emanating the aroma of a feast—on Holy Saturday. She was the only Indian I knew by name in the years of my childhood and youth, although I grew up in Indian country. Every Saturday she came into our store to make a small purchase: pickled pig's feet, chitlins, blood sausage, head cheese, pork liver.

She was always by herself. She wore moccasins and was wrapped in a blanket, even in the warmest weather. The coins she used for her purchases were in a leather pouch that hung like a goiter at her neck. Her face was the color and texture of the moccasins on her feet.

Indian was a near-mythological word for me, full of nobility and beauty, filled out with stories of the hunt and sacred ceremony. Somehow it never occurred to me that this Indian squaw who came into our store every Saturday and bought barely edible meats belonged to that nobility.

While she made her purchases from us, and did whatever other shopping she did on these Saturdays in town, her husband and seven or eight other Indian braves sat on apple boxes in the alley behind the Pastime Bar and passed a jug of Thunderbird wine. Several jugs, actually. As I made back-door deliveries of steaks and hamburger to the restaurants along Main Street, I passed up and down the alley several times each Saturday and watched the empty jugs accumulate. Late in the evening, Bennie Odegaard, son of one of the bar owners and a little older than me, would pull the braves into his dad's pickup truck and drive them out south of town to their encampment along the Stillwater River and dump them out.

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I don't know how Prettyfeather got back to that small cluster of tarpaper shacks and teepees. She walked, I guess. Carrying her small purchases. On Holy Saturday she carried four ham hocks.

I had never heard of any Saturday designated as holy. It was simply Saturday. If, once a year, precision was required, it was "the Saturday before Easter." It was one of the heaviest workdays of the year. Beginning early in the morning, I carried the great, fragrant hams shipped from Armour in Spokane, Hormel in Missoula, and Silverbow in Butte, and arranged them symmetrically in pyramids. We had advertised all week long. Saturday was the commercial climax to the week. Holiness was put on hold till Sunday. Saturday was for working hard and making money.

It was a day when the evidence of hard work and its consequence—money—became publicly apparent. The evidence was especially clear on that particular Saturday, when we sold hundreds of hams to deserving Christians, and four ham hocks to an Indian squaw and her pickup load of drunks.

The Saturday pinned between Good Friday and Easter was one of the high-energy workdays of the year, with no thought of holiness. I grew up in a religious home that believed devoutly in the saving benefits of the death of Jesus and the glorious life of resurrection. But between these two polar events of the faith, we worked a long and lucrative day.

I would have been very surprised, and somewhat unbelieving, to have known that in the very town in which I worked furiously all those unholy Saturdays, there were people besides the Indians who were not working at all, nor spend ing, but were remembering the despair of a world disappointed in its grandest hopes, entering into the emptiness of death by deliberately emptying the self of illusion and indulgence and self-importance. Keeping vigil for Easter. Watching for the dawn.

Something strange is happening on earth today, a great silence, and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
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He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captive Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: "My Lord be with you all." Christ answered him: "And with your spirit." He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: "Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light."
—The reading for Holy Saturday in the Liturgy of the Hours

As it turned out I interpreted the meaning of the world and the people around me far more in terms of the hard working on Saturday than anything said or sung on Friday and Sunday. Whatever was told me in those years (and I have no reason to doubt that I heard truth), what I absorbed in my bones was a liturgical rhythm in which the week reached its climax in a human workday, the results of which were enjoyed on Easter.

Those assumptions provided the grid for a social interpretation of the world around me: Saturday was the day for hard work, or for displaying its results, namely, money. If someone appeared neither working nor spending on Saturday, there was something wrong, catastrophically wrong. The Indians attempting a hungover Easter feast on ham hocks were the most prominent exhibit.

It was a view of life shaped by "The Gospel According to America." The rewards were obvious, and I enjoyed them. I still do. Hard work pays off. I learned much in those years that I will never relinquish.

Yet, there was one large omission that set all other truth dangerously at risk: the omission of holy rest. The refusal to be silent. The obsessive avoidance of emptiness. The denial of any experience and any people in the least bit suggestive of godforsakenness.

It was far more than an annual ignorance on Holy Saturday; it was religiously fueled, weekly arrogance. Not only was the Good Friday crucifixion bridged to the Easter resurrection by this day furious with energy and lucrative with reward, but all the gospel truths were likewise set as either introductions or conclusions to the human action that displayed our prowess and our virtue every week of the year. God was background to our business. Every gospel truth was maintained intact and all the human energy was wholly admirable, but the rhythms were all wrong, the proportions wildly skewed. Desolation—and with it companionship with the desolate, from first-century Semites to twentieth-century Indians—was all but wiped from consciousness.

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But there came a point at which I was convinced that it was critically important to pay more attention to what God does than what I do; to find daily, weekly, yearly rhythms that would get that awareness into my bones. Holy Saturday for a start. And then, times to visit people in despair, and learn their names, and wait for resurrection.

Embedded in my memory now is this most poignant irony: those seven or eight Indians, with the Thunderbird empties lying around, drunk in the alley behind the Pastime Baron Saturday afternoon, while we Scandinavian Christians worked diligently late into the night, oblivious to the holiness of the day. The Indians were in despair, religious despair, something very much like the Holy Saturday despair narrated in the Gospels. Their way of life had come to nothing, the only buffalo left to them engraved on nickels, a couple of which one of their squaws had paid out that morning for four bony ham hocks. The early sacredness of their lives was a wasteland; and they, godforsaken as they supposed, drugged their despair with Thunderbird and buried their dead visions and dreams in the alley behind the Pastime, ignorant of the God at work beneath their emptiness.

This article originally appeared in the March 17, 1989 issue of Christianity Today.

Eugene H. Peterson is former pastor of Christ Our King United Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, and the author of Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997)

Related Elsewhere

Read our other articles in The Great Reversal:

Maundy Thursday | By Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Good Friday | By Virginia Stem Owens

Easter Sunday | By Philip Yancey