Holy Saturday….Always that has seemed to me to be the strangest sort of name to put on this day. Holy? What is holy about utter silence, utter stillness, utter death? Hallowed, yes; but not holy, at least not yet, not for a few more hours. And so today I am caught all day between two tensions. I remember the horror and grief of yesterday, and I yearn toward the release and relief of tomorrow.
Yesterday, a little after two o’clock, I did as I do every year on Good Friday. I put my communion kit in the car, along with two heavy-duty ziploc bags and a garden trowel, and I headed out from my house to Ruthe’s.
Every Wednesday when I am in town, I do the same thing, of course, because Ruth is house-bound in a wheel chair and I am the Lay Eucharistic Minister from our parish who takes the eucharist to her. Or that is how things were in the beginning, years ago. By now and after all these years of Wednesdays together, she is as near to me as any human being could ever be, short of marriage or kinship. We are friends at that subterranean level where channels flow quietly, watering both our souls.
So, other than the fact it was Friday instead of Wednesday, only two things were different about yesterday. The most obvious one is the business of my packing a trowel and plastic bags in with the normal eucharistic tools. The second is less obvious, but equally significant.
On Wednesdays, when I am to go to Ruthe for us to celebrate the mass together, I tend to show up sometime between three and three-thirty, depending on the load at my office and how many phones calls I can lay aside in order to leave for the day. On Good Friday, though, the timing must be as precise as it is random on other days of the year. On Good Friday, I have to be to Ruthe’s in time for us to get her out onto the side deck of her house.
Charles, Ruthe’s husband, built this small bit of quietness for her years ago. There’s even a carefully pitched, sloping ramp so we can roll her chair down to the deck with minimum difficulty. And once we are there, we are no more than eight or ten inches off the ground itself, which is what matters. It matters because Ruthe’s wheel chair, a plain yard chair for me, and a garden table-altar set for the eucharist have to all be in place by fifteen minutes before 3 o’clock. It is at fifteen minutes before 3 o’clock, at fifteen minutes before the ninth hour of the Roman day, at the quarter hour before the hour of His death, that we begin the words of the holy meal.
“The Lord be with you,” I say.
“And also with you,” Ruthe answers.
And so it was yesterday and so it will be for many ages to come. We moved through the words of the mass and through the sharing of the bread and wine. We said our closing prayers; and while Ruthe watched, I sat on the edge of the deck and began to dig a hole just where the front of the deck meets the edge of the walkway. It never has to be a big hole. That always surprises me, just as it did again yesterday. Such a small hole in the huge earth…six, eight inches deep and no more than another ten or so across.
I brush the earth from my hands and turn back to the altar-table. Its few vessels have to be wrapped back into place in my communion kit, and the linens folded away for some other time. Then I take out the sacks, and Ruthe sucks in her breath sharply, her eyes tearing just for a moment as she watches. I lift from the kit the small glass container that holds the reserved, consecrated wine and the little brass box that holds the reserved, consecrated wafers. It is the only physical access we have, she and I…the body and blood of Jesus…and we will not have even them for these three days. I put the wine in one bag, sealing it carefully against damage during the time of its burial. Then I do likewise with the coffer of bread.
While Ruthe watches, I set the blessed elements deep into the small hole, trowel the earth back over it, take up the flat rock Charles has set there for us, and then tamp it securely in place. As the rock bites into the new-turned ground and as the clock strikes three, I say the words. Every year and always the same. I say: “Jesus of Nazareth is dead.” Then, saying no more words even of farewell, I roll Ruthe back up the ramp, and I leave. The only relief in our parting is that the trowel still sits waiting in the corner where the front of the deck intersects the line of the sidewalk.
So all is quiet in Lucy, Tennessee this sad day. My kit is empty, any communion impossible, lacking as I do, all the things necessary to effect it. And all will be quiet until tomorrow morning.
Tomorrow morning, God being willing, I will get up at six, dress in jeans, and head to Ruthe’s. She will be waiting for me on the deck. If it is chilly, as I think it is going to be tomorrow, she will be wrapped in blankets; but she will be waiting, though she may not be alone. Sometimes, a neighbor or two will also be sitting there too, all of them silent in the early dusk.
There is no word spoken, no greeting, no exchange between or amongst us as we wait. We wait, of course, for first light. We wait for the dawning. And before the sun breaks the horizon, but just as the rose light signals its coming, I will pick up the trowel at last and begin to dig. As the sun breaks across the horizon, I will lift out the holy bread and wine, and say, “Christ is risen!” loudly enough for the whole world to hear me, should it be listening. And Ruthe, along with others who may have come, will in turn shout back, “He is risen indeed!” Then we will open our sacks and spread our feast, and feed one another in the promise of Easter and with the food of faith.
We will weep a bit, but not with bitter tears. No, these will be tears of joy and relief that this time of awful interruption is over for another year. And we will remember and tell each other about other Easters and sometimes even, when she has been feeling well enough to make them, we will share a warm hot-cross bun in Ruthe’s kitchen before we scatter to our various families….
…but always – always – it goes with me. Always, in Easter memories, there lingers that haunting taste of this day–this Holy Saturday–when there is nothing.
May God have mercy on all our souls.
As I was nearing the end of the months of compiling the Sayings of Jesus into the The Words of Jesus volume and, even more, during these last five or six weeks since it has been published, I received, and have continued to receive, some fairly thought-provoking questions. I have received enough, in fact, so that I have been able to discern a certain consistency or pattern in what reporters and other folk are interested enough to ask about with predictability. And number one on the list of faq’s is the question: Which of the Sayings of Jesus did you find most surprising?
Now that’s a very reasonable question, except that I can’t exactly answer it, at least not in any straight-forward way. Much of the difficulty, I think, is that my answer, although it is very clear to me, is nonetheless not a very impressive one. That is, the Saying that most surprised me is one that I have known all my life and paid little or no attention to. Beyond that, it is only four words long and has absolutely no immediately apparent theological significance as such. To say the least, it would not convert souls or re-arrange doctrines, in the usual sense of those processes. It did, none the less, grab hold of me, as if I had never seen it before; and it also changed Jesus for me.
The Saying – it is Saying 57, Book IV – is spoken after Jesus has been on the cross for a few hours and is nearing death. Looking down from that place of torture, He sees His mother standing nearby, watching Him in extremis, and He says, “Woman, behold your son.”
Always before, to the extent that I had thought about it at all, I thought what I had been taught to think, namely that He was saying to Mary something to the effect that she, as a widow who was about to lose her oldest male child as well, must now turn to the apostle John for protection and support. Now I don’t think so.
It is true that immediately after speaking those words to Mary, He looks down upon those gathered beneath Him and says to John, “Behold your mother,” as if He were consigning Mary to John’s care….which, in fact, is pretty much what I think He was doing with John. I’m just not nearly so sure as once I was about the “Woman, behold your son,” words.
There is a particularity, an intimacy, an intensity to His calling to her directly, and it rests in that word, “Woman.” Woman. He does not address John by name, nor does He call Mary, “Mother.” No. This is starker than that. And contrary to all the neatly sketched out conclusions I have heard in sermon after sermon about how perfectly lovely it was that even dying like that, Jesus could still be concerned about his mother, the truth is that what He actually says is not just stark. It is also singularly without affection. Woman, behold your son.
She had known from the beginning that it would come to this, or to something like this. From His conception there had been the prophetic knowledge that she was privy to, and an instrument of, something upon which time and space would both pivot. Even Jerusalem’s most ancient and beloved priest, as he held her infant, had turned to her and said, “A sword will also pierce your soul.” So she had known, and now she stood beneath His dying form feeling at last the sword of Simeon’s prophecy.
But He tells her something else, something that is caught between the two of them in an intimacy beyond that of all the rest of human affairs. He is not saying, “Look at John now for help.” Why ever would He say that to her? He is saying instead, “Look at Me.”
Look at Me and understand, Woman, that your job is done. You have done it, and it is done….well done, Woman.”
Just briefly, from that cross, God stops long enough to say to His creature, “You have done what was required.”
It is finished.
Jesus, as the Passover meal was ending, said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you. But not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming back again to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.
“From now on, I will not talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me so that the world may know that I love the Father.”
Jesus then said, “Arise, let us be on our way.”
Saying 49, Book IV
THE WORDS OF JESUS – A GOSPEL OF THE SAYINGS OF OUR LORD