Yesterday was Holy Saturday. It was my favorite liturgical day of the year. It is the day my mother died, while I held her hand eight years ago.
It is a strange day, perhaps, to consider a favorite. Most people might think the day afterwards, Easter, gives us more to be happy about.
Easter is about new life and resurrection. It is about the happy ending we all hope for – the happy ending that actually takes place.
But I prefer Holy Saturday, because it is an in-between place. It is a middle. It is the place between death and resurrection.
Middles are not easy places. In a book by one of my favorite theologians, Lauren Winner writes that “middles rarely denote something good.”
She mentions the example of “middle school.” In American terms, this refers to that awful time between primary school and high school, when you’re twelve and thirteen years old. I was awkward, covered in acne, and could not decide if I had a crush on a boy named Chad Mitchell, or if I wanted to run from him, squealing.
Lauren Winner also reminds us of the Middle Ages: that backward period after antiquity and before the Renaissance. Antiquity was good – the birth of democracy, civility, philosophy. The Renaissance brought early modernity and enlightenment. The Middle Ages, between them, were called the “dark ages” for a reason.
What about love? Falling in love is glorious. When we call something the “honeymoon period,” we’re still referring to the beginning of a marriage. Sticking through the middle of a relationship, though, takes work. If I look at my in-laws now, married for forty-five years, I see a peace born of having endured the life beyond the honeymoon – the mortgages, the kids, the loss of their own parents, midlife crises, temptations, the transition to retirement – all in the middle.
Middles are not easy places, because they can be ridden with uncertainty. The first Holy Saturday was like that. For Jesus’ disciples, it was a day full of grief and despair. After Jesus died on Friday, the disciples fled and hid in the Upper Room. The man they had put all hope in was dead. He had lost. They had lost. For them, it was over. They weren’t only asking themselves, what are we supposed to do next, without him? The question was also: what happens to us? Will we also be arrested and killed, because we followed him?
It is normal in the Christian life to spend some time in such a middle place like Holy Saturday. It is a place where I find myself, time and time again. It’s not possible to be full of holy insight and reassurance for the duration of our faith lives. We are human, and that makes us prone to doubts, insecurities, and anxieties. This also applies to our spiritual life. We meet ourselves in the middle, in the humdrum between the joys of new faith and the wisdom we receive after time and experience.
Yet the middle can also be a terrifying place, a place where we have cause to be anxious. When I heard about the death of nearly 150 university students in Garissa, Kenya this past week, my heart sank. Here was yet another incident where people were killed for being Christians. The students were rounded up out of their beds by Islamic militants and asked to recite the Koran. Those who were able to recite were spared. The rest were not.
This comes after the publicized deaths of Christians at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. We saw the Egyptian Coptic Christians dressed in orange before their executioner, lined up on the shore. But in North Korea, too, fifty to seventy thousand Christians are imprisoned, right now, in labor camps. In the Holy Land, Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews are celebrating Easter today as an oppressed minority caught up in the ongoing conflict.
This list goes on, and it is disheartening. My husband put it this way: for Christians now, we appear to be living in an extended version of the Holy Saturday story. We are grieving, and we are scared. We are wondering what is supposed to happen next, and if we will be okay.
The thing about Holy Saturday, though, is that it is a middle. In 2015, we have the benefit of knowing what the first disciples of Jesus did not know: we know about Sunday. We know that the story gets better.
This is why I love Holy Saturday.
Holy Saturday is an invitation
to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Holy Saturday, as a spiritual practice, gives us a safe space to be vulnerable. It is a place to sit with our doubts: to wait, to pray, and to trust that the story will get better. This takes work and discipline. But it’s so important, because it won’t be the last time that we will find ourselves in the middle.
But what about the Christians in Kenya? Or the Egyptians on the beach, dressed in orange? Looking at the way their story ended, how can we believe that it gets better?
Well, how do you believe in the Resurrection?
I like the way Mary Oliver’s poem about Percy, her dog, tells it. She writes from the point of view of Percy, who comes back after he has died and says:
“And now you’ll be telling stories
of my coming back
and they won’t be false, and they won’t be true,
but they’ll be real.”
The Bible holds the stories of Christ’s coming back. They are the stories of other people who saw him, who told other people, and who wrote it down.
You and I, though, cannot be certain about Christ’s resurrection until it becomes personal for us. The Resurrection is real once we experience it.
I experienced the Resurrection in my mother’s face on Holy Saturday, which in death, looked full of peace.
My husband experienced the Resurrection in the West Bank, where he watched a disabled Muslim boy stand up in church and sing the song, “Majesty.”
We experience the Resurrection in the sun rising every morning, in the tide returning on the beach, in the stars appearing night after night, reminding us that we are only one planet in an endless, beautiful, self-sustaining universe.
These are the moments that remind us we are not alone. These moments show that there is a strong force of goodness and beauty at work, even in a world that otherwise seems stuck in Holy Saturday.
If God is real, then Resurrection can be real. It can be real for those students in Kenya and the Christians on the beach. I daresay they were not alone when they died. I daresay they are not alone, now. Neither are the North Koreans waking up in a labor camp this morning, or the Christians celebrating Easter in the Holy Land, with us, today.
If the Resurrection is real, then after Holy Saturday, comes Sunday.
Let us wait, pray, and rejoice in a story that gets better.
© 2015 Anastasia Hacopian