Holy Saturday: Pushing into Liminal Spaces

Last year at this time I was preparing to speak to the 2019 graduating class of Columbia Bible College. Speaking to them at an “in-between” moment, the crux of a teeter-totter: on one side the predictability of grade 5, then grade 6, then grade 7… all the way up to completion of College; on the other side, overwhelming possibility.

Graduation is a liminal space.

“Liminal” is an art and literature term that describes the space between two realities—it comes from limin, which means: threshold. When you stand on a threshold (in a doorway), you have exited one room, but have not yet entered another. It’s an in-between moment. I told the class of 2019 that it was oddly appropriate that they were graduating on Holy Saturday.

It’s also, however, strangely appropriate to return to this thought on Holy Saturday 2020. I’ve been describing the feeling of this pandemic as follows: “It’s like we were all on a trampoline together, and someone threw something large and extremely heavy right in the middle, and everything—us, all our plans, all our stuff, everything—flew up in the air… and we froze there.” It feels like an in-between moment. Planning is difficult in constantly shifting circumstances, finances are imperiled, we are either far too stretched or far too bored, events are put on hold. Our 2020 graduates will graduate, but without the usual weight of ceremony and communal celebration. It’s a liminal moment.

So I’m coming back to the story of Holy Saturday—because it feels like a moment I need to push into right now. It feels like we might need to sit in the dark, to hold a vigil, to allow for grief, to acknowledge the “in-between.”

Yesterday, we mourned Jesus’ death and walked through his pain. Tomorrow, we will celebrate (in whatever way we can manage) the joy and bursting light of his resurrection. But today—today is a liminal space.

 On Holy Saturday, Jesus is entombed. When we think of Easter weekend, we usually talk about the room before and the room after: about the first day, and then… on the third day… but we rarely talk about the day in the middle: Christ’s death accomplished, his resurrection yet to come.

Other years, on this in-between day, I have found myself wondering what that particular Sabbath was like for the followers of Jesus. Luke 23:50-56 tells it this way:

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. 55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.

“But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”

Why have I never noticed that sentence before? What a radical form of obedience: to rest when it’s the last thing you want to do.

Imagine you are Mary, or one of the other women who had come with Jesus from Galilee… or perhaps you are Peter or one of the other disciples, or Joseph of Arimathea:

You have been waiting for the kingdom of God.

You have pinned your hopes for your self and your nation on one man.

You have watched him heal the blind make crippled legs strong again.

You have heard him teach, and have marveled at his wisdom, maybe trembled at the challenge of his teaching.

You have dreamed that a Messiah would rise to throw off Roman oppression—to give back to the Jewish people full rule of the land from which they had been exiled by their own sin.

And you FOUND him! You FOLLOWED him!

And now……

A tomb.

What must that long Sabbath rest of felt like?

You can’t work to take your mind off it.

You can’t even do for Jesus’ body the things that should be done.

Pause and imagine what it must have felt like.

Untitled, Claire Astra Mackenzie https://www.claireastra.com/

I imagine Jesus’ followers felt as entombed as him on that long Sabbath day.

Today, another Columbia Bible College graduating class stands on a threshold between two rooms. And we all stand on a sort of threshold together: life before this virus feels very far away; and life after it is unclear, unsettled. Everything is up in the air. We wonder when it will land—and how we will cope when it does.

Like the tomb, like that long Sabbath rest, it’s a liminal space. And it won’t be the only in-between space in our lives.

There will be waiting rooms: literal and figurative. There will be changing of seasons: literal and figurative. There will be days, weeks, months of uncertainty with decisions to be made, transitions from one place to another, from one job to another; there will be relationships lost and gained.

You will face them. As you face this moment now.

But you will not face them—or this current moment—in the same way that Mary did, or Peter, or Joseph of Arimathea. Because you know something they did not.

Holy Saturday is the threshold between the terror and pain and trauma of Good Friday, and the explosive, unexpected joy of Easter Sunday—just a step across, from one to the other. Just one day.

Poet John Donne used just one small comma to express Holy Saturday: “Death, thou shalt die.”

When you move from one city to another, you do so knowing that the Living God has gone ahead of you.

When you stand between relationships lost and gained, you do so with the promise of Jesus that he will never leave you, never forsake you.

And in those moments—like now—when there seems to be nothing you can do but wait… you do so knowing that you serve a God who waits with you. A God who knows what it means to be entombed. A God who has been to the in-between spaces.

Untitled, by Claire Astra Mckenzie https://www.claireastra.com/

Just last week, one of my favourite artists (who I also have the privilege to name as a friend—and who gave me permission to include some of her work here), Claire Astra Mackenzie, posted some new work on her facebook page: Claire Astra Studios. Working in India Ink and Gold Leaf—she described her new work as “Unfocused. Frenetic. Still believing there is beauty. Taking a moment to breathe.” Allowing the darkness of India Ink to bleed on the page, she picked out some of the liminal spaces with gold—it’s the work you’ve been looking at as you’ve read this blog post. I find it incredibly hopeful! To me, these seem like Holy Saturday paintings: the darkness is still there. There’s stillness, there’s messiness, there’s a sense of waiting, even grief—but the light is there. Glimmering in the liminal space.

My childhood piano teacher, Mrs. Johnson, always told me to pay attention to the space between the notes. The rests—the liminal space between the notes—are really what create the music and give it shape. The silence is just as important as the sound.

In the light of the resurrection, we can begin to see our liminal spaces—even this moment now—as a location for transformation.

Because God is not in the habit of wasting things.

He did not waste Jonah’s time in the whale—but used it to convince Jonah to preach to a bloodthirsty people and turn them toward repentance. He changed the Ninevites, but he also changed Jonah… even if it took awhile.

God did not waste the Israelite wanderings in the desert, but used their wandering to cause them to follow him more closely.

God did not waste Peter’s denial, but used it to make the foundation of his church stronger.

God did not waste Job’s trials, or Gideon’s doubt, or Elijah’s breakdown, or Barnabas and Paul’s argument over John Mark.

He has not wasted my liminal spaces; and there have been many. He used those in-between, difficult times to sharpen skills, to narrow desires, to increase empathy, to build something stronger in me.

He will not waste this liminal space right now. Or any of the liminal spaces you encounter over the course of your life.

            He will not waste your waiting.

            He will not waste your isolation.

            He will not waste your grieving.

            He will not waste your doubt.

            He will not waste you.

Untitled, Claire Astra Mckenzie https://www.claireastra.com/

So right now—on this Holy Saturday—in this liminal space… get ready to sing. Sing from the tomb. Sing from the in-between. Sing the gold-leaf from between the branches. Sing suspended in mid-air as you wait to find out where everything will land… Sing like you mean it:

“Ain’t no grave that can hold this body down.”

Page CXVI: Good Friday to Easter

cxvi_friday_1600Dear Readers,

Next week (April 15th, to be exact) Page CXVI releases their final album in their Church Calendar series. They have graciously given me an advance copy to review (and have given me a link to share with you as a sneak peak preview! – see below). This is a beautiful, rich album. Stronger, I think, than their previous release (Lent to Maundy Thursday). It’s an album that lends itself to the necessary contemplative waiting of Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and then enters with weighty joy into Easter Sunday.

As I generally find the music of Page CXVI to be useful for contemplative listening/prayer (consider buying a few of their hymn albums if you’re planning a personal retreat some time in the future), I would recommend listening to the album this way: make a playlist of tracks 1-3 and play it on repeat as you have time for contemplation on Good Friday and especially on Holy Saturday; then, start your Sunday morning with tracks 4-8. Tracks 4-8 are not jumping-up-and-down-joyful. They are, as I expressed to a friend recently, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection – and of what the cross accomplished – but they celebrate the gain without dismissing the cost.

Listen here, for a sneak peak – The record will be available on pagecxvi.com, iTunes, and other digital media stores on April 15th!

 

Holy Saturday – Facing the Darkness: Chapter 24 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

Holy Saturday is one of the least observed days in the liturgical year – mostly because nothing happens. “There are no public ceremonies, no particular liturgies to interrupt the sense of waiting and vacuity that mark the day” (p. 152). It’s a day for growing – an activity we don’t usually take the time to notice, or consciously engage in. “Holy Saturday faith” says Joan Chittister, “is not about counting our blessings; it is about dealing with darkness and growing in hope” (p. 153).

Once again, I find that I cannot engage with the liturgical year, or write about it, without delving into the personal. How can I speak about facing the darkness unless I’m willing to bring my own darkness into the light? So let me tell you first that the surgery I had three weeks ago (for severe endometriosis) was unsuccessful, and now we wait – again – this time to see if funding goes through for me to travel to Oregon for another surgery (which may or may not be successful). There is a very real chance that my husband and I will never be able to have kids.

So when Chittister says “Someday we will all know the power of overwhelming loss when life as we know it changes, when all hope dies in midflight” (p. 153) – I know what she’s talking about. This Holy Saturday I will wait in the darkness, cradling a broken womb.

You see, Holy Saturday places us in the position of the disciples, who watched as their dreams were strung up on a cross – and buried. “No doubt about it: this is the day of going down into the tomb – our own as well as Jesus’” (p. 155). This is the day that all the dreams that have died, and all the losses we have experienced, rise to the surface and shake our faith.

But, as Chittister says, it is also a day for “growing in hope.”  “The important thing about Easter Saturday” she says, “is that it is precisely when its emptiness sets in that we begin to understand there is as much voice of God in emptiness as there is in anticipation. It is now, when we feel the absence of Jesus most keenly, that we can find ourselves listening to Him most intensely” (p. 155).

Now, more than any other time in my life, I find myself in constant dialogue with God. I always thought that a “life of prayer” was a complicated and difficult thing reserved for the spiritual greats among us, but this constant internal voice calling “help, help, help” is effortless. When a friend asked me what my relationship with God looks like in the midst of everything, I found myself using a somewhat cheesy, but very apt image. I’m like a tree in a wind storm. I can feel my branches whipping around my head – and I can feel myself bending (sometimes it’s almost unbearably painful) – but I know that I won’t be uprooted. And I know that the storm will eventually pass.

And that’s what hope is. It’s not being miraculously lifted out of your circumstances – it’s knowing you can get through them. It’s knowing that God’s faithfulness is not shaken by circumstance. That the all-powerful God of everything is willing to sit with you in the silence of a tomb. “There is hope that we can begin, finally, to see the world as God sees the world and so trust that God is indeed everywhere in everything at all times – in the abstruse as well as the luminous, whether we ourselves can see the hand of God in this moment or not. To be able to come to that point before the beginning of the Easter Vigil, before the cantor sings the Exultet into the darkness, is what Holy Saturday is really all about. Then loss is gain, and silence is a very clear message from God” (p. 157, emphasis mine).

How have you experienced God’s presence in the darkness?

The Weight of Good Friday: Chapter 23 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

by Stacey Gleddiesmith

Good Friday.

The day when hope falters and darkness seems to triumph.

Joan Chittister describes the pain of second-century Israel: “the grief was still raw. After all, they were still waiting for His return, then and there. And in the midst of the wait, the desolation inspired a fast that tapped into the profound heartache of a people. For years, the Christian community fasted not only on Good Friday but on Holy Saturday as well…. For years, the fast was a complete one. Early Christians took no food or water at all. They fasted for forty straight hours without either eating or drinking” (p. 148).

Now, she says, Good Friday gatherings are often mere pageantry:  “something to watch, something to realize with a pang… But nothing really serious” (p. 151).

So how do we push past our momentary sympathy with Christ, and take up our cross to follow him? How do we inspire our congregations to do so? How do we preach crucifixion to a culture that shrinks from unpleasantness?

We can use darkness and silence. We can bring newness to history through creative tellings. We can hold back the celebration and take time to sit in the dark. To wait. We can add weight to our words, laying the burden of Christ, for once, heavily on the shoulders of our congregation. Allowing ourselves to feel our backs bowed and our knees trembling – Friday, Saturday.

More than that, we can fast. Having read this chapter, I feel a fresh urgency to observe Good Friday by taking in nothing but the death of Christ. I need the gnawing in my belly that will, in Chittister’s words “whet the need for the return of Jesus to our own lives.” The fast of Good Friday, she says, “means to concentrate us on the moment, to be there nagging at us in the midst of our distractions, to keep us keenly aware of what the spiritual life is meant to be about” (p. 151). I need that. Desperately.

So I invite you to fast with me. Or, if not to fast, to solemnize this day in another way. I invite you to share, here, your experience of Good Friday – the weight that was laid upon you – that we may fully experience together the lightening of Easter morning.

Holy Thursday: Chapter 22 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Ian Walden

“Holy Thursday is, indeed, a study in mixed emotions.”

Today, we disparate disciples will enjoy Communion like no other – but by night’s end we’ll be scattered, each to our own fears. Today, we see the beginning of a new Eucharistic world – and hear the clank of soldiers’ boots on the garden path. Today, we get our feet washed, and see in Jesus’ servanthood a new vision of authority, one that will nourish and cultivate rather than dominate – only to have our beloved leader taken from us. Today, we are intimate with the recently-hailed King of God’s people – but still have little idea where he is going, why he is going there, or what he expects from us in his absence. Today, we get closer to Jesus than ever before – and realise how prone we are to betray or abandon him when he leads us toward any kind of danger.

This is, as Chittister insists, a threshold – both for Jesus and for us – between life and death, between community and life as they should be, and how they/we still are. It is hard to know how to feel. It is hard to truly rejoice and truly lament. (It’s a relief to admit this; I’ve always found it makes for an emotionally frantic week.)

This is also Jesus’ time to give injunctions; nice, clear ones. “Do this in remembrance of me.” “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” If ever there was a time for conversion, for a new kind of living, this is it. And since we’re not anywhere close to obeying these injunctions yet, it’s a time for pondering that gap, and for raising pleas to heaven that grace will enable us to change anew.

All of this is good reason, then, to end our Thursday services in silence – a silence that will last a further 48 hours. A fast for eyes and ears; a chance for hearts to ponder, to catch up. And boy is there a lot of catching up to do … Any ideas how this liturgical silence can be carried into Friday and Saturday for those of us not in monastic orders??

Holy Week: Chapters 20 & 21 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Andrea Tisher

Holy Week is here. Now. We’re in it. Already.

Jesus has entered the city of peace. He has been sung to, lauded, waved at with greenery. He has wept over the misunderstanding of who He is.

And now there’s really not much left to do, except to stay mindful of the events of the rest of the week. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

Chittister rightly warns of the intensity of the drama that unfolds during this week.

Her opening comments are helpful, and I’ll return to them.

But first, I must quibble with Chittister. Which I really hate to do. She’s been such a lovely conversation partner and guide. But here, in what could be argued is the most important week, she drops the ball. Vague references to the opening liturgies of Holy Monday-Wednesday. Holy what? And then a whole chapter on the ways days of the week were measured and other assorted mundane topics. I’m trusting that as she leads us through the days of the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) that she’ll regain her footing in offering us ways to view these days and doorways into meaningful participation. But these overview chapters left me a little disappointed.

Back to her opening comments, as I think that’s where there are some gems…

Of Palm/Passion Sunday: “It reminds us that at the moment of what seems to be the height of Jesus’ public acceptance aslo begins the process of His public betrayal, His public failure, His public abandonment.”(130)

And of the week in general: “Why must this happen? What is all this suffering about? But deep down inside of us, we already know what the life of Jesus and these first days of Holy Week confirm: there are some things worth living for, even if we find ourselves having to die for them as well.” (130-131)