“Friday is here, but Sunday is coming!” This was the familiar refrain in a powerful message by Tony Campolo during the Austrian Baptists’ annual “Burning Church” conference hosted at my church in Vienna a few years ago. Campolo spoke of one of his colleagues at his home church who had communicated that simple message to a raucous congregation.
In a world caught in the deadly clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Christians are declaring that we need Easter Sunday now more than ever. In our grief and suffering, we need the positivity of the good news that Jesus has conquered death. I certainly agree with that. However, I think it is imperative, especially this year, that we do not rush to Easter.
Sunday is coming, but it is not here yet. First comes Good Friday, followed by Holy Saturday.
I was introduced to a theology of Holy Saturday at the annual “Theology Live!” forum hosted by a coalition of British Baptists highlighting theological work of Baptists across the United Kingdom. Dan Pratt, a minister in Southend-on-Sea, shared his theological reflections on working with victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. Through the lenses of contextual and trauma theologies, he reflected on the dark reality that many of these victims face. For them, even for those who are believers, resurrection has not yet come.
“We cannot escape to thinking about how our lives will go back to our privileged ‘normal’ at the end of this pandemic.”
Too often in Christian spaces, we rush through the story of Holy Week. From the crucifixion of Jesus, we leap to the glorious, bright sunshiny morning of Easter. We jump almost immediately from the cross to the empty grave. We give scant attention to the day in-between, in part because the Gospel narratives do not dwell on it.
But the reality of Holy Saturday is vital to Christian faith. And for many of us it is more important this year than at any time in our lives.
I am concerned that much of the Western Church has turned Easter into yet another form of instant gratification of our wishes and desires. Uncomfortable with the reality of pain and suffering in the world, we are adept at doing anything and everything to drown out or dull pain. We have made the Easter story into a satisfying, “happily ever after” fairy tale. We tell those who are suffering, “It will all be OK; we know how the story ends.”
Yet, we are not at our stories’ end. While Jesus is indeed alive, the reality of God’s Kingdom is far from being fully realized in our world. Ultimately, rushing to the goodness of Easter is part of an escapist mentality only afforded to the most privileged among us. As Pratt and other theologians have noted, this rush to Easter sweeps the reality of suffering under the rug, which in turn makes us complicit in much of the continued suffering in the world. Truth be told, we have done an incredible job of insulating ourselves from the pain of the world.
With breathtaking speed and stunning breadth, COVID-19 has broken down our seemingly invincible systems of insulation. For the first time in a long time those in the West are experiencing real pain, isolation, suffering and grief. While I do not deny the awful realness of that pain, our experiences pale in comparison to the everyday realities of much of the rest of our world. For too many in our world the joy of Sunday never comes.
I have the privilege of working on behalf of Virginia Baptists with European Baptist refugee projects. Simple, quick, positive answers do not work here (if, indeed, they work anywhere). With the current political climate in Europe, there is no promise of redemption for refugees. There is no promise of surviving the perilous boat trip across the Mediterranean. Or promise of leaving the overcrowded refugee camp. Or promise of receiving positive asylum. Or promise of being reunited with family.
For millions of refugees around the world, the message of encouragement from Christians that “it will be OK – we know how the story ends” can only be heard as empty words that do little to console or address the reality of the daily hell in which they live. The rest of us are now getting a taste of their hell.
Thankfully, the reality of Christ’s story is not some instantly gratifying fairy tale. Pratt, drawing on Boston University theologian Shelley Rambo’s work in trauma studies, spoke about this middle place of Holy Saturday – a pendulum swinging somewhere between death and resurrection. It is a middle place of deep grief, trauma and pain. A space where we cannot see the light of resurrection on the horizon. A place that speaks hard truth to much of the darkness and anguish of our world.
The miracle of Holy Saturday is that God is there. Somehow, in the midst of the pits of despair, our glorious and mysterious God is present. Even when there are no recognizable signs of redemption, God’s love is present. God sits with us, knowing our pain and suffering and isolation and grief far deeper than we can ever comprehend.
We cannot rush to Easter. We cannot escape to thinking about how our lives will go back to our privileged “normal” at the end of this pandemic. We must feel Saturday’s pain in its totality. We must let it shock us and wake us up to the stark reality of the world’s darkness.
“For millions of refugees, the message from Christians that ‘it will be OK – we know how the story ends’ can only be heard as empty words.”
I do not mean that we should succumb to hopelessness. We must tend to our own mental and physical health in these dangerous and fearful times. We must pay attention to our own pain and to the pain of those we hold dear. But I pray that as God sits with us through each moment of Holy Saturday, our pain and grief will be transformed into empathy and our empathy transformed into solidarity with “the least of these” in the world. A solidarity that begins now, not just on the other side of this pandemic.
In the meantime, we lament to God. We weep. We put on sackcloth and ashes. We lean on the stories in our beautiful scriptures of lonely prophets and wandering desert people and a Savior who suffered. We support each other as best we can. We pray for patience and endurance. We cry out for mercy. We beg for forgiveness of our selfishness and pride.
And we find solace that even in the long, dark hours of Holy Saturday, God is still with us.
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