I found out earlier this week that my Masters essay on Liminality has been accepted by Peer Review for publication in Crucible On-line Journal (I’ll post a link when it comes out). It is a piece of work that continues to inform my daily living with Jesus in liminality and in my present stage which is just beginning to step out of liminality. Relevant today, is part 3 of the essay: Holy Saturday Spirituality. There’s a link to the full essay on the reddress writing page.
PART THREE: HOLY SATURDAY SPIRITUALITY
1. A Pregnant Pause
The Christian Faith is essentially the Faith of the Resurrection: those who knew Jesus as a man walking this earth would not have told and retold the events of his life, had they not been totally transformed by their encounter with the dead-now-risen Lord Jesus (Alison 1993, 5). All that we know about Jesus is passed on to us by people who have experienced the Resurrection and know that the Life and Death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is not the end of the story. We receive what has been passed on to us, just as the Apostle Paul has said, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
In the Apostolic witness, the first Holy Saturday is remembered by its absence. Some of the first disciples saw the body in the tomb late in the day immediately before the Sabbath, then some of his disciples saw the tomb without his body, early in the day immediately after the Sabbath. The actual Sabbath day is missing in the narrative and we can only infer that the disciples proceeded with Sabbath observance as was customary.
So also, Holy Saturday is absent in the Paschal Triduum Liturgies. “Holy Saturday is the truth of our lives, so close to where we are that it serves as the heart of the paschal liturgies but is itself, as the nature of the divine-human encounter, a mystery beyond even the power of liturgy to encode” (Farwell 2005, 69). The Saturday Evening Vigil technically takes place on the Sunday (because Sabbath starts at sundown) and alludes to the waiting, the expectant hope of the Christian who already knows that Resurrection Day is coming. It is this absence of word and action on Holy Saturday that distinguish it as day of liminality.If the activity, or lack thereof, on the Sabbath day can be inferred, so to can the affectual experience of the disciples. All their hope had been placed in the man Jesus, and his execution essentially brought that to an end. The disciples dispersed, Peter denied even knowing his Beloved Rabbi, Joseph of Arimathea looked after the necessary burial arrangements in secret, and the women seem to have done what needed to be done without comment. It is impossible to imagine that they were not dejected.
Alan Lewis has noted that the pregnant pause in the middle of the Passion-Easter narrative acts as a boundary “which allows the mind and heart easy movement and a fertile cross-reference between the two. For the first-time traveller, however, the boundary is a frontier-barrier obstructing forward progress” (Lewis 2001, 43). For the first disciples, Holy Saturday was the end. “So we have not really listened to the gospel story of the cross and grave until we have construed this cold, dark Sabbath as the day of atheism” (Lewis 2001, 56). This distinction between the first disciples and all other believers who encounter Jesus through their testimony is significant for the present discussion of liminality. Christians know Holy Saturday is not the end of the story because Jesus is encountered only as the Risen Lord. For believers, liminality on Holy Saturday is not a natural consequence of reading the Jesus narrative, it is a result of getting lost. We have the simple outline presented to us: Jesus lived, died and rose again. But then something in life brings us to our limits and we become disoriented. We forget part, or all, of the story. We cannot match the meaning of the story with the testimony of our own lives, the symbols have become detached from their meanings and cease to make sense. If we lose our way, we regress to the testimony of those traversing of the story for the first time: a day of despair when God had not yet turned things upside down.
In his discussion on Resurrection, Rowan Williams describes how the experience of liminality is integral to encountering God in the dead-now-living Jesus on Easter. Encountering Jesus who is ‘wholly other’ in the Resurrection draws us into a liminal moment in which we no longer fully understand life, death and where to locate God and ourselves. “The resurrection can and should operate as a central symbol for the purification of desire and the de-centring of the ego, because the necessary first moment in the resurrection event is one of absence and loss” (Williams 1982, 77). The pregnant pause in the narrative is a confrontation. Do we read the dramatic placing of Christ in the grave as the end of the story? Put the book down and descend ourselves into hopelessness? Or do we choose to lie ourselves down in the tomb next to Jesus and trust, however blindly, that something mysterious, beyond our current capacity to describe or define, will bring about an ecstatic finale? Imaginatively placing ourselves into the narrative as the first disciples illuminates the story for us, but it is not the way of discipleship. We follow the way of Jesus when we choose to become his disciples, and this means we follow him through the grave. This is Balthasar’s question: how does the Christian accompany Jesus through the supreme solitude of Holy Saturday? How do we share in “being dead with the dead God” (Balthasar 1990, 181)
2. Solidarity with Human Solitude
“In that same way that, upon the earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead” (Balthasar 1990, 149). For von Balthasar, Jesus descent into death is the last leg of the Incarnation – the completion of Jesus’ human form and the key to understanding Holy Saturday. There is one exegetically difficult text from 1 Peter 3:19 about Jesus being active in death – ‘preaching the gospel to those in prison’ – but by the fourth century there was enough speculation about his underworld experience for it to make it into the creeds with the line ‘He descended into Hell.’ Von Balthasar argues that whatever speculative suggestions we make about hell and Jesus ‘descent,’ we must not deny the completeness of his death. “It is a situation which signifies in the first place the abandonment of all spontaneous activity and so a passivity, a state in which, perhaps, the vital activity now brought to its end is mysteriously summed up” (Balthasar 1990, 149). The result of Jesus’ death was the sure communication of the gospel to all humanity, across all time and space. Von Balthasar expresses this poetically in this imaginary conversation between Christ and the human person:
“You leap down from a high cliff. The leap is freely made, and yet, the moment you leap, gravity leaps upon you and you tumble exactly like a dead stone to the bottom of the gorge. This is how I decided to give myself. To give myself right out of my hand…. This was the plan; this was the will of the Father. By fulfilling it through obedience (the fulfilment itself was obedience), I have filled the world from heaven down to hell…. Now I am all in all, and this is why the death which poured me out is victory. My descent, my vertiginous collapse, my going under (under myself) into everything that was foreign and contrary to God – down into the underworld: this was the ascent of this world into me, into God….You are in God – at the price of my own Godhead. You have love – I lost it to you….This was my victory. In the Cross was Easter.” (Cited in Farwell 2005, 71)
Death has been a part of universal human experience since the first Adam, and hence death must be a part of the total solidarity with humanity by the second Adam. This is why Christians are able to speak of the Cross as an act of love. It is a radically self-giving commitment to remain in relationship with humanity, even to the extent of losing oneself totally. Upon death Jesus the Divine-Human is entirely dependent upon God the Father for his Redemption. Jesus, by virtue of his human nature, has become powerless. This is the pathway forged for Jesus’ followers through the valley of death. At the extreme of human limitation, the only way beyond comes not from ourselves, but by the Loving action of God whom is beyond. “Holy Saturday is the day in which God has died ‘into’ our very own death and sanctified it, in all its stark, immovable threat” (Farwell 2005, 69). What then, does Paul mean when he urges us to be dead with the dead God?
“The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 5:12-6:11)
In the liminal moment, when we at last grasp our own finiteness, we are forced with this choice: do we continue to trust only in ourselves, to know only that which is available within our human limitations; or do we open ourselves to the possibility that we are not as superior in the universe as we have previously thought ourselves to be? The ego must accept that it is powerless to project far enough into the world to make sense of all of life. We must let go of the expectation that we are in complete control, that we are masters of our destiny, that we are autonomous beings who need no Other. Jesus models this perfectly for us. As Incarnated Being he submitted himself entirely to Father not only in obedience, but in existential dependence. “Because the Descent is the final point reached by the Kenosis, and the Kenosis is the supreme expression of the inner-Trinitarian love, the Christ of Holy Saturday is the consummate icon of what God is like” (Nichols 1990, 8). We stay in the moment, and wait for God to intervene, just as Jesus did. All of which sheds a soft dawning light upon Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it. And those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25-26).