It’s that odd space between the intense sorrow of Good Friday and the Easter blowout. In between the two . . . you mow the lawn or watch college basketball or do your taxes or take the kids to the park. That’s the way most of us spend the typical Holy Saturday.
In theory we ought to spend the day in fasting and prayer, in imitation of the disciples who’d just seen their friend tortured to death and their world collapse, but in fact we spend it pretty much like any other Saturday. I think of friends who on Facebook post profound reflections on Christ’s descent to the dead and snarky articles on Donald Trump. And this is all right, I think, because that kind of Holy Saturday is the way we tend to live in the world.
Death the New Normal
Someone I love is dying. We only found out a few days ago. He may live a good while yet, maybe, as the doctors try to hold the disease back, but more tests may show it’s progressed too far to stop. In either case, he’s going to suffer until he dies.
I write this on Good Friday and my friend’s sickness has been a Good Friday experience. Yes, of course, before someone makes the predictable remark, we experience our Good Fridays knowing about Easter morning. We know that death does not have the last word.
But death does have the last word for the moment. When a loved one dies, he’s dead for the rest of your life. The hope of the resurrection doesn’t make the death of a loved one any less horrible now. We were made for fellowship with God in the next world, but we were also made for fellowship with others in this world, and we will feel the death of a loved one as a deep cut.
Jesus wept at his friend Lazarus’s tomb, even when he knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead in a couple of minutes. A close friend’s death made him weep. How evil must death be to make the Son of God cry? There’s a reason St. Paul tells us to weep with those who weep, because this world is a world that gives us reason to cry.
Even so, for my friend and for his family and friends, his slow dying will become the new normal. We’ll all adjust. He’ll face it head on and do what he has to do. Those who wept when they heard the news will get on with their lives.
He and everyone else know the Good Friday of his final decline and death is coming sooner or later, but life will go on. It has to. You can’t keep weeping. The good things in life don’t stop being good things because you feel the pain of death more sharply than usual. You still have to do your duties. You have to mow the lawn and do your taxes and take your kids to the park.
Watching your child run across the grass would be a pleasure even were all your friends dying. You would be unjust to your child to stand quietly mourning when he says, “Daddy, look at me!” That’s the only way we can move through life in a created but fallen world, where loved ones die too soon but your children want you to watch them running. Sometimes you mourn, sometimes you cheer on your child. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes, and in both cases, blessed be the name of the Lord.
This Odd Day
In other words, we live every day as if it were the typical Holy Saturday—that odd day sitting between the reality of death and the reality of Christ’s final victory over death. Sometimes we feel one and sometimes the other. Sometimes we feel the first and just can’t manage to feel the second. We believe it but we don’t feel it. Sometimes we’re blessed to feel the second in a way that erases, at least for a while, the first.
Sometimes we look back to Friday and sometimes forward to Sunday, but most of the time we’re just doing what we do on Saturdays. Easter Monday is the day we say “Christ is risen,” but it is also Holy Saturday, the day we can sometimes say with comfort “Christ is risen” but at other times can only feel “Christ is dead,” and at yet other times can say both.
You will sometimes hear people call themselves “an Easter person.” Many really mean “I’m a healthy extravert living in America with an upper-middle-class life” and some really mean “I want to be an Easter person because the Good Friday I’m having is a hell I can’t take.” Saint John Paul II used the term, but his life and writing showed that he did not use it lightly.
It’s not a very useful term as generally used. It’s true as far as it goes, but it leaves out too much to be really true. Every Christian is an Easter person, yes, but he is also a Good Friday person. Many people are, for great stretches of their lives, much more the second than the first, but we are all sometimes more the second than the first. There’s a lot of pain in the world.
No Easter Person
I write on this because so much of our popular piety treats life as if it were always good and the Faith as if it were only Easter, and that’s just not the way we live. I write this at a kitchen table, ten feet from my beloved friend, who’s slumped in his chair sound asleep because the painkillers he has to take to keep from crying put him to sleep.
If someone were to come to the door and tell me to be an Easter person, I think I might actually hit him. I’d probably just say something very rude, but I’d want to hit him.
Because it’s just not true. It’s a lie that will hurt people who believe it, and feel guilty because they’re not happy when they suffer. We live on Holy Saturday, and sometimes we go back to Good Friday before we move on to Easter. That’s when we look to Jesus on the Cross.
For further reading:
David Mills’ Real Death, Real Dignity
Russell E. Saltzman’s Death, Again
Michael Bradley’s What the Good Thief Teaches Us About Life
Marina Olson’s Death, Philosophy, and Advent