Living in the long, uncertain Saturday

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
23 Apr 2011

We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross. But the non-Christian, the atheist, knows of it as well. This is to say that he knows of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historic dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives. We know, ineluctably, of the pain, of the failure of love, of the solitude which are our history and private fate. We also know about Sunday...the lineaments of that Sunday carry the name of hope (there is no word less deconstructible). But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. - George Steiner (emphasis added)

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In commercial terms, Saturday is often the busiest of the week. In Easter terms, it a period of silence, uncertainty and perhaps even confusion. The horror of Good Friday has visited us. What next? Can life "just go on", and if so in what possible shape and form in relation to the knowledge of the death-dealing of which we have proved so capable, and which haunts us (or ought to)?

The difficulty for Christians is the temptation to pass through the agony and disturbance of what George Steiner calls "the long day's journey of the Saturday" because we think we know the "happy ending" that comes on Easter Sunday. All shall be well, so "no problem". But this is a dangerous mistake, for all kinds of reasons.

For a start, the day of resurrection is not a "happy ending", but a massive further disturbance and upheaval – perhaps the largest of all.

Second, it is a life-giving appropriated "on trust" (as we say "by faith") not as a guarantee of the kind that we might expect from cashing a cheque.

Third, what it offers is not "solutions" to the problem of death, suffering, wrongdoing and the Groundhog Day that exists within and between them. Rather, it is an invitation to let-go into the life of God without being able to tie things up neatly.

Fourth, while Christians celebrate, in history, this all-transforming revelation of risen life overcoming death, the reality which this imagines, instantiates and points towards is in its fullest form eschatological ... it has come, it can take hold of us, but in its true shape lies ahead of us, beckoning us forward. So it cannot, by its nature, be grasped and “used” for our limited purposes. It breaks down all walls and overturns all expectations.

“Resurrection faith” is therefore as far as you could possibly get from the superficial "magical answer" that the child in us may seek, when confronted with the pathos and tragedy that intertwines so intractably with the beauty and glory of existence.

But more of that tomorrow. In the meantime, we may note that from the perspective of Saturday - which is the expression of where we live right now, in the midst, in ordinariness and muddle - even what may be said theologically in the light of our anticipatory knowledge of Easter Sunday is not instantly available. We are not on the Sunday page, and we cannot evaluate the Saturday by pretending to possess that perspective without the risk of reducing or trivialising both “days”.

To live on Saturday, then, is to live with the scars of Good Friday, but no knowledge (yet) of Easter Sunday. And this is where most of us are most of the time. So in his remarkable book Real Presences George Steiner (the European-born American literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, translator, educator and 'secular' Jew - not to be confused with Rudolf) says that those of other faith or no faith have their own analogues of this long Saturday. Indeed for Jewish people it, rather than the Sunday Christians have adopted, is Sabbath. Likewise many people, of all confessions and none, know the Friday experience "of the pain, of the failure of love, of the solitude that are our history and private fate". They similarly know about Sunday, "the day of liberation from inhumanity and servitude... the lineaments of that Sunday carry the name of hope."

In the meantime, they and we must inhabit the long, uncertain Saturday. Indeed, we Christians may need considerable help from others to be able do this truthfully, such is the tendency to be pulled back a day or pushed forward one. But Saturday is an indelible and crucial part of the Easter story. Without Saturday, Friday has no end and Sunday has no beginning. They are abolished.

Therefore the authentic Saturday vigil, says L. Gregory Jones in Embodying forgiveness: a theological analysis, “has a sense of the timeful craft of the character of forgiveness”. It also has more than an intimation of Jesus’ disciples’ dubiousness about the hope they have been promised. It is a time, I would suggest (from experience, rather than just “in theory”), of waiting without knowing, of anticipating without realising, of “going on” without being clear about where we are headed, of “keeping going” without a map of the engine that will make this possible. Saturday is, or can be, “suspended living”.

Likewise, the Saturday challenge is how not to be trapped by “despair and fear-inducing paralysis” (Jones), not to give in wholly to the dread of “going nowhere” (which may be the reality at times), and not being tempted towards resentment and revenge in the face of frustration.

Resisting these life-shrinking possibilities requires the cultivation of the kind of character that can practice the life-sustaining virtues of forgiveness without expectation of reward, hope without expectation of vindication, peace without expectation of victory, investment without expectation of wealth, and more.

This is because the lust for reward, vindication, victory and wealth is precisely what corrupts Easter Sunday - robbing it of its true power to give us life beyond bargaining, and substituting for its essentially non-possessive character a ‘chimera resurrection’ by which we claim life by stealing it from others, or by living at the expense of others.

That is why the “suspended living” and difficulty-in-flourishing we Christians may experience on Holy Saturday is so crucial. It is what provides the time we need to purge and redeem the malignant fantasies we may otherwise have about Good Friday and Easter Sunday, restoring them to their rightful place and connection, such that we can live this long Saturday with integrity.

The last word is one I will give to John F. Kavanaugh, Jesuit professor of philosophy at St Louis University in Missouri. He says of Steiner’s vision and guidance – rightly, though with perhaps a little too much of a hint of supercessionism: Well said. But not enough. There is a content to Christian hope. Our paschal faith reveals that love can glorify all wounds. The risen Christ asks of Peter, “Do you love me?” He tells Thomas: “Enter the wounds.” Enter them, indeed: the wounds of the world, the wounds of our nation, the wounds of each of us. But enter with the love for the least of us in our least condition, a love revealed by the Word made flesh. Not only are wounds made glorious. Ethics is transcended and made complete.

May it be so.

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References:

George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1989). Is a painting, a musical composition created in the absence of God, asks Steiner? Or, is God always a real presence in the arts? He passionately argues that a transcendent reality grounds all genuine art and human communication. "A real tour de force. . . . All the virtues of the author's astounding intelligence and compelling rhetoric are evident from the first sentence onward."—Anthony C. Yu, Journal of Religion.

L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A theological analysis (Eerdmans, 1995). Jones proposes a way in which many issues and concerns relating to forgiveness can be better understood, articulated, and analyzed. Specifically, he argues for an overarching context of a Christian account of forgiveness in the God who lives in trinitarian relations of peaceable, self-giving communion.

John F. Kavanaugh SJ, ‘Beyond Morality’, America magazine (17 April 2006). http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=4737

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* The first article in this set of four, 'The religious betrayal of God and its antidote' is available here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14612

* The second article, 'What sense does it make to say "Christ died for us"?' is available here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14623

* The fourth article, 'Life-giving beyond denial, anger, bargaining and depression', will be published on Easter Sunday.

See also: 'Cross and resurrection through a poet's eyes', by Alison Goodlad (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14621); and 'Wondering again over the Passion', by Jill Segger (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14617).

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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