Holy Saturday on a warm spring day. Has you thinking you can almost feel the advent of resurrection. The resurgence of life from death-like winter courses through the imagery of Easter, after all, so it’s hard not to see it anticipated on a day like today, hard not to imagine the hidden life in the buried grain, the unseen sap rising, pushing life through the limbs. It’s the Johannine Jesus, after all, who compares the fruitfulness of himself in death to the death a grain of wheat (Jn 12:24). One of my favourite Easter hymns announces that ‘Love has come again like wheat that springeth green.’
Rowan Williams’ ‘Borgo San Sepulcro” draws on the same idea. Williams compares the opening eyes of the risen Christ to the ‘wax lips of a breaking bud/ defeated by the steady push, hour after hour’, the hunger in those eyes to impart the overwhelming life within to rooms waiting ‘to be defeated by the push, the green implacable rising’ while we, sensing his gathering strength, wait for his spring. The imagery suggests the inevitability of the return of life, the inevitability of Christ’s resurrection. And so Holy Saturday, when it’s sunny and warm, can feel like the prelude to resurrection, the green and the flowers like signs of a gathering strength, an impending overthrow of death.
But I think that pathetic fallacy is deceptive, theologically.
At the heart of the story of Jesus Christ is what Hans Frei called ‘the pattern of exchange’, which was also at the heart of early Christian understandings of incarnation, atonement and human transformation. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ takes on our condition and imparts to us a share in his own: his sinlessness, his right standing with God, his relation to God as Son, his Life-filled humanity. In this way, in his person, humanity is rescued from sin and death, reconciled with God, assimilated to a God and united with God. A corollary of that logic is the rule Gregory of Nazianzus articulated: that ‘the unassumed is the unhealed” (Ep. 101). What of our humanity and condition Jesus does not take on, is not transformed.
The sense we can have on a sunny Holy Saturday, the intuition to which so much of our Easter imagery leads us, runs foul of that rule, it seems to me. For if Jesus Christ assumes our death, then he assumes its finality, its exhaustion of creaturely breath, its coldness and its rigour, its silence. If he assumes our death, his body must become a painful gap in others’ lives. It must tear bonds and shatter hopes. It must pierce his mother’s soul and scatter his friends. It must alienate him from hope of sharing God’s own life.
For that is what the gospels indicate. Jesus, whose power to take the initiative is reduced step by step after his arrest, is utterly inactive from the moment of his death. He does nothing, who has stilled storms, revived the dead, multiplied healings and driven out the prince of demons. Crucifixion has worked its horrid tortuous efficiency upon him. No-one can say of him, do not weep, he is only sleeping. Sometimes, in films, the hero is reduced near to death only to spring up and surprise and reassure us with the hidden reserves we had been led to hope they have, the hidden strength, cunning, knowledge, or deeper magic of which their enemies knew not. Something of that runs through stories like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. Not so with Jesus Christ. He is dead beyond recall. His enemies succeeded in killing ‘the author of life’ (Acts 3:15). And his body has already become a painful gap in the lives of his followers. He dies God-forsaken.
Life has to come to Jesus Christ. Peter’s testimony in Acts 3:15 announces not Jesus’ hidden strength become manifest, but the action of a God who raised him from the dead. They same is true in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. There it is God’s faithfulness to his Holy One which explains why he raised him, freeing him from death; why it was ‘impossible for him to be held in its power.’ Jesus Christ must await the Spirit’s recreating power. His resurrection is not his recovery at the last minute, not his reassertion of himself. It comes after the devastation of death. It comes after Holy Saturday.
Jesus Christ’s death, and the silence and the gap it introduces, then, underscores the reality of our death, reveals its truthfulness, and the horror of certain deaths, like murders (whether at the hands of the state or its enemies or for other motives). It underscores the reality of our varied griefs, too. It reveals thereby also the gap between the Risen Life he embodies and dispenses, and the possibilities of our creaturely reality. The resurrection is not a historical possibility, but something that comes upon creation, the second touch of God’s creating power reconfigured to incorporate us into the life of God in the person of the Risen Jesus Christ. We hope not for the unwinding of death, or of time, its instrument, but something more and new.
The sequence of Holy Saturday-Easter Day is instructive, but it is not the pattern for the whole liturgical year. Before long we will be back in Ordinary Time, the figure of the ambiguous character of our present in which death lives on, apparently unscathed by its cataclysmic defeat, and yet the new has come in the Risen Jesus who reigns at God’s right hand, and sends his Spirit. Something more than the possibilities of our creaturely historical existence is also at mysteriously work, in and through our histories. Not the rising sap, but the quiet insurrection of the risen Lord.