Here we are—in that limbo of Holy Week known as Holy Saturday. It’s not part of the Triduum exactly, but it can’t quite be ignored. What does it commemorate? The day Jesus lay in his tomb. For those of us who already got the spoiler, there’s no breath-holding anticipation; we know that it’s only a matter of hours until we pounce on Easter baskets and sing “Alleluia” again. So what did we do until then?
Growing up Catholic, Holy Saturday was always a day of waiting. But that’s putting it a bit too reverently; it was, to be more accurate, a day of impatience. Maundy Thursday had its script—dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper and the washing of feet—Good Friday had the solemn and often morose reading of the bloody Passion, and Easter Sunday was all about the gleeful Resurrection. But Holy Saturday? I suppose, in its original form, it just entailed a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In recent years, however, Holy Saturday has slowly filled a void the rest of Holy Week unwittingly produces: absence of contemplation. Oh, you can say that litanies of confession on Good Friday are contemplation enough, thank you very much, but it’s not really a free contemplation, is it? Where are the moments when we can—in our way, unguided by script and prescription—reflect on what the heck Jesus’s death and resurrection is all about? They are nestled into the quiet confines of Holy Saturday.
I feel particularly compelled to reflect on the purpose and commemoration of Good Friday this year, on this quiet day of waiting. As a Catholic—and even, in certain moments, as a converted Lutheran—I cringed at the thought of a Christian’s obligation on Jesus’s day of death. More than any other liturgical feast, Good Friday provides Christianity a way to inflict incurable guilt upon the masses. How? By repeatedly stating the same thing in innumerable ways: Jesus, the innocent son of God and son of man, was tortured, crucified, died, and was buried in a lowly tomb because of YOUR sins.
What follows is twofold—a reflection on the immensity of Jesus’s anguish, physical and emotional, and the extensiveness of our abominable sin. In my mind, religion has perpetuated this view of Good Friday both to insure its authority in guiding souls back to God in Christ, and to produce a string of human emotions that come something close to what we imagine righteousness to be. Consider it: In examining our sin and the death of Christ, we acknowledge our complicity in Christ’s unjustifiable murder. We are then bound by guilt for what we have done, and through guilt, we come to something like humility—a bowing-lowness that passes for contrition and, to the minds of certain religious leaders, the condescension of the Godhead for mercy.
But let’s take another stab at this self-flagellation, shall we? I hardly think the God of Gods would want us beating ourselves yearly in supposed reverence for Jesus’s death. What we lose in this crucifixion business is the divine purpose behind it. I once read a beautiful book on God’s work in humanity by the incomparable Gerhard Forde. His exact words I don’t remember, but the gist of his message was this: Christ died, not for our sins, but that we could be ourselves again. That is, that we could let go of divine fancies and hunts down rabbit holes for quintessential righteousness. Christ on the Cross is perhaps the most fucked-up thing our world could have produced—it was unfair, violent, unjust, illogical, brutal, traitorous, and, perhaps just plain evil. But God said, in God’s own way and time, that he would be a part of this. He did this for two reasons. First, it was to show that this kind of abomination was not the final word. That we know. But the other part is this: God acts in abomination, and loves what is abominable. This we claim to know, and yet… we spend our Good Fridays moping over killing the Son of God.
The truth is, nothing God does is for God. God has all God could want or need, whatever that means in divine terms. Jesus’s life on earth was entirely for us—not as compensation for our stupidity and continued sinfulness, but as a way for us to recognize that Jesus, fully man and fully God, could illumine God’s work in the darkest, dingiest places. Though we are broken, though we are prone to sinfulness, we are never unworthy of love and compassion. We are never apart from God, and we never have to climb back up to him. Forde sums it up perfectly in the title of one of his seminal works: “Where God Meets Man.” That’s it exactly.
So, I think, Good Friday should cease to be a moribund procession of black and weeping. Yes, Jesus died. But that’s not the end and sum, folks. The point is that even though that ultimate horror was our own doing, it was also our own redemption—in reminding us of who we are: people, imperfect and sometimes terrible, who are nonetheless part of God’s beloved creation. And if we make it a point to look deeply within ourselves on Good Friday (and throughout the rest of the year), we will find that what we are made to do and what drives us forth are very godly indeed. We are the good creation God loves, and Jesus’s crucifixion reminds us of it: go, sin no more, and do what you were made to do. That, friends, is why we call it “Good Friday.”