In the slanting sunshine of last autumn, hiking the bush trails along the ridges above Lake Superior, I found myself inexplicably excited about the soil. All around me, the energy, the life force of the woods was burrowing back into the earth. The birch leaves were having one last hurrah of brilliant yellow. Mountain ash berries clung to the naked branches that had been their source of life. Tamaracks were raining orange needles to the silent ground. The grasses were golden and leaning toward the earth. It was not the glory of those colors, nor the brilliant green of determined mosses that captured my imagination. No, it was what could not be seen, deep in the rich dark possibility of the soil.
All evidence to the contrary, I knew that the soil held the promise of another spring, when everything pointed to an ending. It is this unseen potential, unrestrained by the evidence, that is so exhilarating. Just imagine what might come of this! Perhaps God has put within me, within you, within the world this same possibility. Just imagine what might become of this!
Good Friday is tainted with murder, darkness, defeat, and mayhem. Easter brings the symbols of new life—the curving green necks of fiddleheads, the crocus blossoms. Saturday, though, is the day between all that. It is the day of the miracle hidden deep in the soil of our existence. It is a day of hope bound to possibility—all evidence to the contrary.
How does one traverse that canyon of a day between the pooling blood at the foot of the cross, and the glory of the resurrection boogie? What can possibly carry our broken hearts and bodies across that ancient ravine between the cliffs of death and the giddy heights of new life, a canyon alive with joy and pain, fear and struggle, gore and delight. Perhaps only metaphysical materials—grace, hope, beauty, love, patience—can build a bridge long enough, strong enough, to bear the weight of our lives.
Only a baby’s downy ear and the love that made her could make it worth the trouble. Or an August raspberry. Or the clicking of a chickadee’s feet on a branch. Or a kiss at cemetery gates. Or the mystery of the One within and beyond, who calls us, in spite of the defeat, to something, we know not what. But there it is again—a whiff of something breathtaking.
Mercifully, our life’s journey is not made mostly on Good Friday. Nor do we live out our days basking in the radiant joy of Sunday’s resurrection, although when life does take us to either extreme, we find a faithful companion crucified beside us, or a dance partner on the lawn beyond the empty tomb.
Mostly, it seems to me, our lives are lived in that relentless Holy Saturday where joy and sorrow, bondage and liberation, life and death tangle. A day that unfolds forever between the cross and rising Son. Holy Saturday is the day of release from prison, with a new set of clothes and walking money, but no place to go. Or the day we see clearly that the marriage has broken beyond repair, but a ring is still on our finger. Or the day the funeral flowers have wilted, the out of town mourners have gone home, but our soul is stuck near the grave. Or when made weak by the cure, we hear the word “remission.”
Or it is simply the day when nothing happens. Holy Saturday, that in-between day, is the day we know best.
No doubt we trivialize the reality of Jesus’ death, and our own. “On good Friday we put Jesus in the tomb like bread in the toaster, fully expecting him to pop on Easter morning” (source unknown). We also skip over what is happening between the cross and the rolled-away-stone. For most of us, Saturday is that non-day between the death and life events of Easter weekend. Holy-week-harassed preachers put Jesus in the tomb Friday night and think, “Lucky guy, three days to just lie around.” The rest of us get up Saturday morning, put coffee on, get down the jam, paint some eggs, buy a ham. Jesus is gone but he’ll be right back.
Holy Saturday spirituality is for in-between times. By that virtue alone, it is a holy day among holy days. Author and theologian Frederick Buechner writes that
The ancient Druids are said to have taken a special interest in in-between things like mistletoe, which is neither quite a plant nor quite a tree, and mist, which is neither quite a rain nor quite air, and dreams, which are neither quite waking nor quite sleep. They believed that in such things as those they were able to glimpse the mystery of the two worlds at once.
—Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, 1988
Holy Saturday spirituality stands between the two absolutes of our existence. It is neither quite life nor quite death. It is on this day, between absolutes, that most of us catch glimpses of the mystery of those two worlds at once. This in-between day is a doorway to the sacredness of all days.
And it is unusually quiet. Meister Eckhart said that there is nothing in this world that resembles God as much as silence. Saturday is a day of rest, of silence. Even God—or especially God, it seems—was silent that day.
All the Gospel writers leap from “… they put his body in the tomb and it was sealed” to “Early on the third day…” It’s only later, when they tell the resurrection story, that they double back to images of fear and locked doors. Maybe Saturday can only truly be seen through the lens of Sunday. Luke alone has a word on how the disciples spent the day between death and resurrection: “On [Saturday] they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56b, NRSV). Perhaps the first discipline of a Holy Saturday spirituality is stillness.
It is an expectant stillness. Some years the Roman Catholics in our town light up a vigil fire on Holy Saturday night. They gather outside the church dressed in parkas, toques and mittens, because it is usually still winter in these parts. There are as few as ten or 15 people, never more than 30. Maybe the children wonder why there are no marshmallows to roast. The fire casts their shadows up against the red-brick church and the Credit Union next door. It is not a big fire. It could not be seen with the naked eye from a space station, for example, or even a high-flying jet. Unless you happened to drive by, you wouldn’t even know it was burning.
But it is burning. That is the exciting thing. Even as the shadow of the cross lengthens across the weekend, there is a fire, a light that will not be defeated. John’s gospel makes that promise at the outset: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5, NRSV). The Saturday fire is not big, but it stands as a defiant witness to the Great Light that will not be overcome, even by the blackened sky of Friday.
It is a mirror reminding us of the Light within and among us, refusing to surrender to the principalities and powers that would leave us languish on the cross, in whatever guise it appears. The spirituality of Holy Saturday is one that stands its ground with the Light, in spite of the pain and cruelty and darkness of the cross. This testimony of fire is not rooted in the evidence of the previous day but on the unseen promise of the day to come.
This hope sustains the seed in the winter and awakens it the springtime. Perhaps not fear alone, but also hope, kept the disciples clinging to one another until Sunday. “In the midst of winter,” wrote Albert Camus, “I discovered there was, within me, an invincible summer” (“Return to Tipasa,” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 1952).
Saturday hope is much more than optimism; it is a choice for tomorrow against the evidence of yesterday. “To hope is to gamble,” writes author Rebecca Solnit, “It’s to bet on the future” (Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 2004). Holy Saturday spirituality involves committing one’s life to the flow of love against the tide of death and hatred. It is a spirituality that binds one’s life to the undefeatable light, possibility and hope woven into the very nature of Creation, woven into the promises of Jesus and into the longing heart of God’s desire.
A version of this article was originally published in the United Church Observer in 2006.
Header image courtesy of Wallpaper Stock.