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?