The Silence of Holy Saturday

By koa sinag

The Silence of Holy Saturday

In the Meantime

We will face disappointment in our life of prayer. But don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. God knows and sympathizes with our struggle. He hears and is acting even now upon our pleas, often in unexpected ways. And not a single prayer for his glory and the world’s good will fall to earth utterly fruitless. Such prayers always arise as sweet incense to him. He is storing them up for the day of unimaginable glory and goodness, which is our sure hope in Christ. So, in the meantime . . .

The trouble is with this “in the meantime,” the time of so many seemingly unanswered prayers. It is important, then, to add a point having to do with Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. That there is such a thing as Holy Saturday in the gospel is remarkable, if oft overlooked. Why wouldn’t a simple movement from death one day to resurrection the next be sufficient? Why put a whole day, and a day of “rest” and inactivity at that, between cross and resurrection? Why might it be crucial to come to terms with not only the substance of the doctrines that we associate with Holy Week but also the three-day shape of the drama at its climax? A theology of Holy Saturday is of crucial importance for many things,1 including sustained faithful, fervent prayer.

Let us imagine ourselves in the shoes of the first disciples on that Sabbath between cross and resurrection. What would that day have been like?

  • It was a day of anguished disappointment, regret, and failure. All their hopes were ruthlessly dashed upon the rocks of the previous day. They had hoped that Jesus would redeem Israel, but he was put to death.2
  • It was a day of fear—their supposed King was dead, and the authorities who put him to death were alive and well and powerful all around.
  • This means it was also a day when the idolatrous kingdoms of the world still apparently ruled the day. In Matthew 27:62–66, the rulers of the world plotted together (Matt. 27:62), self-assured that theirs was the only show in town.
  • That Saturday was a day when it seemed that death had the last word. After all, the one claiming to be the Son of the God of life was buried, defeated by death. And this Son’s people, the agents of his life, were isolated, alone, hiding away in fear for their lives.
  • The Sabbath after the first Good Friday was, therefore, a day of ambiguity. What next? What hope could lie ahead? What kind of imposter or fool was the corpse lying in Joseph’s tomb? The disciples likely still believed in the God of Israel in a manner, but that faith didn’t see a clear way forward for God’s people and mission and promise.
  • It was a day of silence from God. In all this distress and darkness and uncertainty, no word of direction or answer was heard from the heavens.

A Day of Ambiguity

Try putting that in your telling of the gospel! Amazingly, written into the God-inspired gospel climax is a day of ambiguity, of the kings of the world still apparently ruling the day, of the fear and uncertainty of God’s people, of the seeming victory of death, of the silence of God. The canonical telling of the one and only “good news” is a telling that does not avoid Holy Saturday. This is part of the divine author’s message, part of his inscrutably wise ways in the world.

It turns out that God not only expects the life of prayer to traverse seasons of weariness but even writes such seasons into the heart of the story. The sovereign God grants his disciples such experiences. We may rightly assume that they are intended in some way for his people’s good. Again, that helps us, a little—not as an immunization against anguish in the face of good prayers long left unanswered, but as a reassurance that such experiences are not pointless but part of a drama with good ends and final beauty and peace.

Looking intently at Holy Saturday from our vantage point, we discern nothing short of good news.

So if we suffer seasons individually and corporately wherein the life of prayer feels like a one-sided dialogue, this isn’t necessarily a result of our unbelief and sin. It’s not an occasion for wallowing in introspective self-pity, as if our moral defects were always to blame. It isn’t an indication that we are outlier Christians. It’s not evidence that we are outside God’s will or attention. And it most assuredly isn’t a sign that things are ultimately spinning chaotically out of control. Susceptibility to weariness in prayer and experiences of the silence of God are, strange as it may sound, part of God-given normal life in Christ in the time between his first and second comings. The church age is, we might say, a Holy Saturday age: an already-and-not-yet “day” in between, an “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing” sojourn, an epoch during which ambiguity, confusion, unresolved tensions, and weeping go hand in hand with humble, bold, joyful confidence in God’s sure promises.

But a theology of Holy Saturday opens the door to more than just a little help in our experiences of the silence of God. Looking intently at Holy Saturday from our vantage point, we discern nothing short of good news. On Holy Saturday, the disciples are suffering the apparent silence of God, but Jesus is dead. How is that good news? He’s dead and buried on Holy Saturday because he himself has already gone through it all on Good Friday—anguish, loneliness, failure, rejection, abuse, silence from God. In fact, the silence from God that Jesus underwent was not just strong and intense like ours; his was absolute, which ours is not. And the good news is this: Jesus underwent this ultimate nightmare for us, in our place, for the life of the world. Jesus suffered God’s silence not just like us but also and fundamentally for us sinners.

As a result, we can have full assurance of faith that though we may often meet with God’s hiddenness and silence, it is not absolute for us. God’s sometime silence toward us his praying people, being only a hint of the absolute silence endured by God incarnate on our behalf, can be received from God as a strange, severe mercy for our good. What’s more, we can also have great confidence that Jesus (who is no longer dead but lives) sympathizes with our plight and can even be present with us through it. Since Jesus has plumbed the utter depths, there is no depth or darkness that we can fall into where Jesus might not also be found.

In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “He wanted to sink so low that in the future all falling would be a falling into him.”3 When life seems a living hell and our cries receive the seeming silent treatment, we can know that God himself has gone there first and thus can be found even there.

Notes:

  1. The most significant work in this respect is Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001). While it is insightful, helpfully provocative, and an important launching point for the following thoughts, I am persuaded Lewis presses his observations of Holy Week into the service of unwarranted assertions about the immanent Trinity. For a forceful critique along these lines, see Thomas G. Weinandy, “Easter Saturday and the Suffering of God: The Theology of Alan E. Lewis,” IJST 5, no. 1 (2003): 62–76; see also, more appreciatively, Keith L. Johnson’s review of Lewis in Perspectives in Religious Studies 35, no. 3 (2008): 338–43. Also worth engaging, building on Lewis’s magnum opus, is the more accessible and practically oriented work of Adam D. Tietje, Toward a Pastoral Theology of Holy Saturday: Providing Spiritual Care for War Wounded Souls (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2018).
  2. The words from the disciples on the Emmaus road in Luke 24:20–21, while spoken on Sunday morning, are nevertheless a clear window onto the disposition of the disciples on Saturday.
  3. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), 43, quoted in Tietje, Pastoral Theology of Holy Saturday, 38. See, further, 47–48.

This article is adapted from Answering Speech: The Life of Prayer as Response to God by Daniel J. Brendsel.



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Author: Daniel J. Brendsel

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