When I was a pastor, my favorite worship service of the year was Maundy Thursday: a remembrance of Jesus’ lonely persistence in prayer, his betrayal by a friend, and then his subsequent arrest. It was refreshing to name the depth of human suffering endured by God and the ways in which that solidified God’s solidarity with us.
To be honest, I usually preached more of a Holy Saturday sermon than a Maundy Thursday one. The awfulness of the Garden of Gethsemane gets worse with Good Friday’s crucifixion and then unimaginable with the bleakness of Holy Saturday.
Smack dab in the middle of the Apostle’s Creed, the church’s common confession, is this statement: Jesus descended into hell, or in some versions, descended to the dead. Catholics and Protestants alike all affirm that Jesus experienced something horrific in between his death and resurrection. It is ineffable, beyond human comprehension. (As an aside, talk of tormenting fire and red-horned devils is far from biblical.) Whatever Holy Saturday entails, descending to hell/the dead is agonizing. It’s like a complete eradication of joy, strength, and vitality; utter powerlessness; inner chaos; and, a cessation of life-giving connection to God and others.
This gives me hope. Because it means that God knows the worst of human suffering, loss, trauma, and all its attendant fear, sorrow, and disorientation. God knows it from the inside out. God is not distant or dispassionate in relation to human grief, anxiety, dread, or despair. God is there in the midst of it, planting LIFE within death.
On this Holy Saturday, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 is over 500,000 in the United States. More than 18,000 people have died from it—that we know of. Actual numbers are much higher. Over 6.6 million people lost their jobs this past week alone. Healthcare workers in places like New York City don plastic garbage bags to try to keep themselves safe. Dead bodies pile up in refrigerated trucks because morgues are full.
This is unfathomable.
The coronavirus struck closer to home this week, too. People I know have died from COVID-19; others are in ICU. A close friend and relative, both health care workers, likely have it. Another family member was furloughed, creating real financial strain on his family. The psychological stress of social distancing and sheltering-at-home is real. We couldn’t buy eggs or milk for over a week. My daughter has protested doing school work every day. Who can blame her? This isn’t really homeschooling or distance education. As one educator put it, we should be calling this COVID-19 schooling and let our kids and ourselves just be. Because . . .
This is disorienting.
On that first Holy Saturday, Jesus’ family, friends, and followers lost their beloved Teacher and Guide. Their hopes were dashed; their trust broken; their lives upended and unmoored from all they had known. Faced with death threats, they hid in their homes and waited.
Worst of all, God was silent. Jesus lay in a tomb. On the day in between his torture and unjust death and his resurrection to new life, Jesus, who is God’s speech and action, said nothing. The Word of God was silent.
As we remember the horror of that first Holy Saturday in light of the horror of this one, perhaps there’s an invitation in the silent waiting. Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor wrote,
“That is what Holy Saturday has taught me about being Christian. Between the great dramas of life, there is almost always a time of empty waiting—with nothing to do and no church service to help—a time when it is necessary to come up with your own words and see how they sound with no other sounds to cover them up. If you are willing to rest in this Sabbath, where you cannot see your hand in front of your face and none of your self-protective labors can do you one bit of good, then you may come as close to the Christ as you will ever get — there in that quiet cave where you wait to see how the Maker of All Life will choose to come to you in the dark.”
For most of us, it will be a quieter and lonelier weekend as we watch Easter services online and eat a meal apart from extended family members and friends. In the silence and the waiting, we also might glimpse signs of life all around us: the return of robins and geese; day lilies poking through the earth; the sun rising and setting each day; if not eggs, then warm oatmeal; a gallery of smiles on our zoom calls; and words buried deep within us coming to life.
There was good news this past week, too. We are flattening the curve. Yes, more people have died, but the number of hospitalizations has slowed in places like New York City. Here in Minnesota, social distancing is working. Together we have purchased precious time for hospitals and health care workers to prepare to treat those who will become severely ill in the months of ahead.
Life really is planted in the midst of death.
The God who endured the unendurable is near.
*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)