Christians defend certain days of the Holy Weekend. For instance, we’ll defend the idea that on Friday Jesus actually died on a cross to save the world from its sin. Then we’ll turn around and defend Easter Sunday as the day that Jesus actually rose from the grave, defeating the powers of evil running loose in the world.
But nobody defends Saturday. Nobody writes apologetics defending the belief that Jesus actually lay dead for one long, endless day two thousand years ago. What’s the defense for that? If you’ve got the power to rise from the grave, why would you wait one whole long day to do it? Why not just rise from the grave, like, just a little later Friday night?
Even if it seems puzzling, something profound happened in the lives of Jesus’ followers on Saturday.
Martin Luther said himself that Saturday was the day that God himself lay cold in the grave. Friday was death, Sunday was hope, but Saturday was that seemingly ignored middle day between them when God occupied a dirty grave in a little garden outside Jerusalem. Saturday is about waiting, about uncertainty, about not knowing what’ll happen. Saturday is ambiguity. It’s about, as one theologian put it, “muddling through” when the future isn’t clear.
When Understanding and Reason Lay Dead
So much of Christian faith is Saturday faith.
I call it “awkward Saturday”: that holy day to sit, wait, hope—unsure of what’s to come tomorrow. Saturday is the day that Jesus, and all understanding, lay dead.
A medieval theologian, Anselm, once described the kind of faith that comes with Saturday—fides quaerens intellectum: “faith seeking understanding.” By that, he meant that faith isn’t something that arises after moments of understanding. Rather, faith is something that you cling to when understanding and reason lay dead. We don’t believe once we understand it—we believe in order to understand it. Saturday’s like that: offering a day of waiting, a day of ambiguity, a day when God is sovereign even if our ideas and theologies and expectations about him are not. It is the day that our ignorance is our witness and our proclamation. Truth is, our intellect will always be one step behind in our love of God. We don’t love God once we understand him; we love God in order to understand him.
When we look honestly at the bigger picture in the Bible, we find, over and over, that people who had real, fleshy, in-your-face experiences with the living God periodically exhibited a pattern in their lives. Most of these people in the Bible at some point became depressed. Some even became suicidal.
For instance, I reflect on the life of Elijah. God sent him to the people with a message about needing to return to God. He went and did his job and then ran away to save his life. Sitting under a broom bush, he asked God to kill him. Elijah prayed, “I have had enough, Lord. …Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then, after praying, he took a nap, hoping God wouldn’t let him wake up.
Or what about Jonah? God came to Jonah and told him to go to the nation of Assyria, his sworn enemy, and tell them that God loved them and had grace for them. He went. The first three chapters of Jonah talk about this miracle. The whole city of Nineveh believed in God and turned from their wickedness. Somebody told me the Hebrew says that even the cows in the city repented. Talk about a successful mission trip.
Then there’s chapter 4. Nobody preaches chapter 4. It’s like it doesn’t exist. After his mission trip was complete and the whole city of Nineveh had believed in Yahweh, Jonah went and sat under a tree. Under the tree, Jonah said to God, “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it’s better for me to die than to live.”
Consider, as well, Job. Satan went and had coffee with God and worked out a deal: Satan could ruin everything in Job’s life, but, God said, Satan could not kill Job. Satan went and destroyed everything around Job. Job lost his children, his sheep, his house, his health, his hope. Everything. But not himself. Like we all would, Job went and sat in the dust. Sitting there in the dust, Job cut himself with broken pottery. While not celebrating hurting one’s body, the Bible acknowledges a cutter in his pain.
Historians tell us that some of our Christian heroes went through similar dark experiences. William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a devoted Christian, helped end the slave trade in Britain. At night, he would walk down to the ships to look at the horrid conditions the slaves had to endure to make it from Africa to England. Wilberforce changed the world. But the task he believed God had assigned him took such a toll on his soul that by the time he died Wilberforce could only get out of bed in the morning with the help of opiates and barbiturates. He got that depressed from his fight against slavery.
Fits with the rest of the story of faith, doesn’t it? I wonder if maybe, during the course of poring over its pages, we’ve neglected to recognize something that the Bible has been shouting for some time. We’ve just refused to hear it—out of fear or whatever.
A legitimate stage of holiness is hopelessness.
Close but Far Away
So much of faith is living in the awkward Saturday, living in the dark mesh of twilight between the moments of hopelessness and utter blinding hope.
At times, we are all like the two disciples on their way to Emmaus who were really close to Jesus but didn’t always know it. In Luke 24, two disciples walked away from Jerusalem, where they’d just seen their Lord and Master die on the cross. Leaving, dejected, upset, hopeless, and broken, to find the next stage in their lives and careers. Unbeknownst to them, Jesus had been resurrected and was actually walking alongside them on their way to Emmaus. The hope of Sunday hadn’t dawned on them yet. The Gospels tell us that, on their way to Emmaus, the disciples were “downcast.”
That experience is the kind of experience Saturday is all about.
English author and mystic Evelyn Underhill hit it on the head: the eternal God of the universe is mysteriously a “nearness yet otherness.”
On Saturday, God is close but so far away. The traditional recipe for Christians is that we look at Friday and Saturday through the lens of Sunday. By that, I mean we look at Friday and Saturday in light of the resurrection in the same way we watch a scary movie we’ve seen a million times. It’s scary the first time we see it because we don’t know what will happen. But when we’ve seen it, we don’t experience it the way we did when we first saw it. Consequently, we don’t experience Saturday as the first disciples did.
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Barbara Tuchman wrote a book in which she talked about “flash-forwards” in history. When we read the stories of our history, it’s tempting to be calmed by knowing the outcome. But, Tuchman tells us, we must understand that those in the events themselves would not, could not, know what we know: the outcome. There are no “flash-forwards” in history.
Most of our Holy Week Saturdays are filled with family, food, and movies. But the original Saturday would have been torturous. Jesus had died and there was no way in the world to know if he would return. We call Friday “good” because we can see things from our angle. Tell that to the first people who lost Jesus. They’d have called it “hell” Friday.
So when we think about Saturday, we must do so rejecting our knowledge that Jesus will rise. Those in the first Saturday didn’t know that. They were unaware. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar brings a penetrating point to the table on this. He says that we prematurely move from Friday to Saturday and from Saturday to Sunday. We shouldn’t. He writes, “We must … guard against that theological busyness and religious impatience which insist on anticipating the moment of fruiting the eternal redemption through the temporal passion—on dragging forward that moment from Easter to Holy Saturday.”
When we experience Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Balthasar is saying, we shouldn’t be too quick to move to Sunday. We must sit in Saturday, not too “theologically busy” and “religiously impatient” to squat in the tomb for a day. Of course, to a certain degree that is true; the only problem with such a statement is that those original disciples—disappointed after watching from the front row their best friend hang helplessly on the cross of a criminal—didn’t know what Sunday would bring. Their Saturday didn’t know Sunday was coming. Their Saturday was final.
And even when we get to Sunday, we must remember that this isn’t the end of the journey. Saturday will come again. It always does.
Carrying the Body
The Gospels speak very little of the disciples’ immediate response to Jesus’ death on Saturday. But before the sunset on Friday, a man named Joseph of Arimathea came to Pontius Pilate to request Jesus’ cold, dead body, that it might be properly buried. The text reads, “Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus.… He came and took the body away.”
It’s a subtle verse you could easily move past, but acres of meaning await within it. According to John—after the crowds fled and the slowly muffled screams of the executed ceased—Joseph made the sorrowful journey to receive Jesus’ body as Friday drew to a close. Slowly, carefully, Joseph lowered the cross, pulled the large Roman nails from Jesus’ fragile hands and feet, and carried him in his arms.
Allow your imagination to paint the devastation of pulling those nails and along with them uprooting your greatest dreams and hopes. Imagine how awkward it would have been then and there. The darkness was never thicker. Hopes and dreams were dashed. Years earlier, most likely, Joseph had left behind his life of predictability and safety to follow an unknown Savior, only to have his vision crushed the night before. Now Joseph held his dead dream in his arms. He hadn’t signed up for this. This wasn’t in the fine print. What a failure. What a waste.
But Joseph still showed up.
Joseph asked for Jesus’ body. It wasn’t forced upon him. He experienced the burden of it by his own choice. Part of being a Christian is carrying the body of your God to its place of rest. It’s heavy. Very harsh. Beyond awkward. But you have to be open to it. It won’t be forced upon you. Who would ask for the heaviness of Christ? Who desires the corpse of Jesus? Who asks for this kind of stuff?
A Christ-follower does.
Holy Moments of Waiting
At the Christian store, there’s a painting illustrating a poem called “Footprints.” Down the middle, one set of footprints walks along the sandy seashore. The poem is a narrative. Walking down the beach, someone talks to God as he (or she) remembers moments from his life. The man’s life journey through these moments is represented by footprints in the sand. Usually there are two sets of prints: one belonging to him and one belonging to God. He notices that during the anguishing periods, though, only one set of footprints is evident in the sand. The man asks God where he was. And God says that during those hard parts, God was carrying him.
The poem is beautiful. Yet, for me it misses something crucial about Christian faith. God does carry us. I believe that. But sometimes faith is so hard that it feels like we are carrying Jesus. That we’re carrying the weight of his very heavy body. Beholding his glory can be so heavy, so weighty. (It is perhaps instructive that the Hebrew word kabod means two things: “glory” and “weighty.”)
There’s another footprints painting that nobody paints or even wants to see, and they’ll never put it up at the mall. That one is about how everyone who’s seeking to follow after Jesus will inevitably end up carrying Jesus to the tomb.
More of faith than we’d like to admit consists of sitting in the tomb, a side of faith many of us probably didn’t sign up for. Joseph probably didn’t. And while maybe we didn’t anticipate those dark moments of waiting, they are nonetheless holy moments. Faith isn’t just Good Friday and Easter Sunday; faith is awkward Saturday too. So much is sitting in that tomb with the soon-to-be resurrected Lord. It’s so dark. So damp. So scary. The silence is deafening. But there is hope in there. Even the ants that normally crawled the contours of the rocks rejoiced. The air praised God. The rock, which would later be rolled away, yearned to jump for joy. The full tomb knew that resurrection was under it all. Because in that kind of dark, there’s a kind of beautiful light. Not a normal light. Not the light of the sun, or the light of a lamp, or the light of a flashlight. A different light that few can see. The light in the full tomb goes much deeper than physical light.
And in that kind of darkness, there’s a glory.
In the tomb, the darkness is thick. But that’s where God is.
A. J. Swoboda is a pastor and professor in Portland, Oregon. This article is adapted from his book, A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension between Belief and Experience (Baker).
Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Copyright © 2015.