Let The Mourners Come
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. – W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”, final stanza
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. – I Peter 3: 18-20
[W]e cannot avoid the following thought: given that the Redeemer, in his solidarity with the dead, has spared them the integral experience of death (as the poena damni), so that a heavenly shimmer of light, of faith, love, hope, has ever illuminated the ‘abyss’ = then he took, by substitution, that whole experience upon himself. The Redeemer showed himself therefore as the only one who, going beyond the general experience of death, was able to measure the depths of that abyss. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, p.168
The morning is silent. After all the activity, the horror and sadness and grief of the previous day and a half, today is a day of silence. Jesus’s body has been buried in a tomb, a large stone rolled in front, guarded by Roman soldiers, both Jewish and Roman leaders afraid it might be stolen.
Part of the silence is the Sabbath rest. Much of the city rests from just another six day’s toil, no different from another’s. The Romans are about, of course. There are also those residents who do not honor the Sabbath, some of the merchants, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, lepers and others ritually unclean. All those excluded from the cultic life of the People demonstrate their acceptance of exclusion by working on this, to them just any other day.
For some, though – perhaps just a few, perhaps more – the silence of this day, the day after Jesus was executed, is a day not just of mourning. It is also a day of fear. The eleven – Judas Iscariot having disappeared – are behind a locked door, wondering to one another what comes next for them. They have followed Jesus for so long, and now he’s dead. Just another failed Messiah. None of the things he claimed would come have occurred, except his insistence on his death. Death, perhaps, leads to a place of rest until the resurrection – so the Pharisees claimed – but beyond that, all they knew of death was the silence and rot of the grave.
They have to assume the Roman and Temple authorities will circle in on them soon enough. Prison, perhaps. Torture if prison comes. Peter wants only to sit and brood, as he told them of his denials of Jesus on Thursday night. The women who had followed and been at the crucifixion are in another room, resting as is right. There are just so many questions, with no answers at all. Death, they believe, is final.
In my room, I, too, rest. I wait, however, because I know time is passing, and this Sabbath is different from any other day of rest. Today, all Creation rests in anticipation of . . . something. The silence of this day means more than just the silence of the Sabbath, or at least the silence of a typical Sabbath. This is all creation’s day to rest. The silence is the silence of grave, where a body, broken and torn but no longer bleeding, lies wrapped in a cloth, awaiting the morning for the spices and proper burial.
We who live in the shadow cast by the Resurrected on the sunny first day of New Creation believe this day to be a day out of time. Because death and all that follows upon it is just that. Time has stopped. Darkness, silence, the incremental creep of rot – these are what make death what it is. And in the fullness of his humanity and divinity, Jesus lies dead, its full experience being brought into the Godhead, so that even death will be made new when tomorrow morning, the sun rises and the women come and the tomb is empty. Did Jesus, in some manner, fashion, or form, preach salvation to the dead? Was there, as traditional Catholic doctrine holds, perform a harrowing of Hell? Of this we cannot either know or, from a single verse in its obscurity divine. What we can know, and claim with a fullness born both from faith and experience, is Jesus is dead, with all that entails. In the fullness of his humanity and divinity, he lies in a hole, wrapped in a cloth, all the emptiness and silence and rot that accompanies death no less something Jesus comes to learn of what it is to be human.
Which is why the Resurrection, which we shall celebrate with joy and song and praise tomorrow, is that much more something at which we should look in awe. Even our death, what we know lies in store for all of us, is now a part of the experience of the Godhead, something made holy and new because it is now in the shared life of the Persons of the Trinity, through the Son to the Father in the Spirit.
So, we wait. We wait in hope that our faith is not in vain. We wait, believing that tomorrow morning will make of this silence not the infinite, final silence that stirs our fears. No, we wait so that we shall see how that finality has ended, how our new lives begin on what we all hope is the first day not just of a new week but a whole New Creation. The silence of this Holy Saturday is the silence during which we consider the silence of the grave, the emptiness of its darkness and timelessness, the absence even of any thought, that one really was, that such things as time and laughter and tears and sex and food and sleep and pain and happiness ever were, either. For now – silence.