It was already getting towards evening, and it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea, a reputable member of the Council who was himself eagerly awaiting God’s kingdom, took his courage in both hands, went to Pilate, and requested the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised that he was already dead. He summoned the centurion, and asked whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned the facts from the centurion, he conceded the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought a linen cloth, took the body down, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb cut out of the rock. He rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried.
It is hard to tell which was more horrible. We watched on the television, some while ago now, as the earthquake off the coast of Japan produced a terrible tsunami. The waves came crashing in, the enormous power of millions of tons of water carrying houses, buses, railway trains, anything and everything in its deadly path. It would have been exciting and dramatic if it had not been so nightmarish.
But then, after the storm, the calm. Not the calm of respite, of waking up and discovering it had all been a bad dream. Not the calm of a flat sea after the ship has weathered the high winds and waves. The broken, twisted calm of a landscape destroyed beyond recognition. Of people walking aimlessly to and fro, unable even to imagine where to begin to clean up, to clear up, to rebuild lives and communities. Our hearts and prayers went out to those people, and they still do.
Holy Saturday must have been like that. Any bereavement leaves you numb, squashed under the heavy, choking cloud of grief. This was a bereavement like no other. For Jesus’ followers, it was as though they had waited all day for a drink of pure,
cold water, and then, when they were lifting the cup to their lips, it was snatched from them and splashed on the dusty ground. It was like the woman who waits through the war for her husband to return, only to have him killed in a car accident a street away from home. It was like the child who returns home after a hard day at school and finds the parents vanished, and hard, rough strangers in the house instead. It was all of this and much, much more. Not only was Jesus dead. Dead! How could he be? But he was. But, almost as bad, looming up like a further great, dark wave, the sense of impossibility, of hopelessness, of a future not just blank but full of nothing but horror. Jesus was the last best hope. And he was dead.
Many have explored this Holy Saturday moment and found in it a strange sort of comfort. It’s all about waiting; and part of the point of the waiting is not knowing what’s going to come next, as certainly Jesus’ followers did not know. Jesus had, to be sure, tried on several occasions to explain to them that he was going to die, and to be raised. But they hadn’t understood this, just as they hadn’t understood when he told them to keep quiet about the transfiguration ‘until the son of man has been raised from the dead’. They wondered then what this ‘rising from the dead’ might mean; as far as they were concerned ‘the resurrection’ was something that would happen to everybody at the end of time, not something that would happen to one person in the middle of time.
So nobody was going around, that first Holy Saturday, saying ‘never mind; in a couple of days he’ll be back’. If they could say anything at all, through their tears and the cold, hard fear that must have gripped them all, it will have been to express a baffled hopelessness. How could they have been so wrong as to think of Jesus as Messiah? But surely they couldn’t have been wrong; nobody had ever done things like that, nobody had ever spoken like that, nobody had ever loved like that. But they must have been wrong. He died, they crucified him, that doesn’t happen to God’s Messiah. And so on, round and round the miserable tracks.
Meanwhile, one brave man does what one brave man can do. Joseph of Arimathea uses his official status as a Council member in the service of his unofficial status as a kingdom-sympathizer. He does for Jesus what gentle friendship can still do. The two Marys see where Jesus is buried. There is a sense of sad quietness about it all.
Yes: like the sad quietness in so many human tragedies and injustices. Holy Saturday gives us a particular kind of space, if we are prepared to take it amid what is often a busy weekend. Holy Saturday offers at least a small moment in which the terrible, blinding truth of Good Friday can sink down into our bones and bloodstream and enable us to make it our own, rather than blundering on as though it hadn’t quite happened. Holy Saturday can be the moment, if we will let it, when the warm clay of our lives, which has been stamped with the cross on Good Friday, sets firm, so that we become people of the cross, people who see the world in the light of the cross, people who, like Paul, have been crucified with the Messiah, so that the life they now live is not their own but his. Like Joseph, we have to take our courage in both hands if we are to do so. But this is the only way to go. We cannot be Easter people if we are not first Good Friday people and then Holy Saturday people. Don’t expect even a still, small voice. Stay still yourself, and let the quietness and darkness of the day be your only companions.
Jesus is dead. Jesus is dead. Think of a world where Jesus is dead.