We know virtually nothing of Holy Saturday; only Matthew dates any events to the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection: a late story of guards being set at the tomb. The other Gospels skip by without a word. Nowhere are we told what the disciples were doing. No miracles are reported, no visions of God, no resurrection appearances, nothing. God, it seems, was absent that day – like so many days since. It was a day worth forgetting, I suppose. Jesus was dead, well and truly, and hope had died with him. Our focus, rightfully, has fixed on the bright morning of Easter, but perhaps a little less haste is in order.
It is worth lingering with the doubt and uncertainty of that Saturday. Doubt can be healthful, scrubbing away our pious illusions and pseudo-knowledge, revealing the raw edges of life that we would prefer to leave hidden. We Christians tend to read the Gospels in hindsight; we already know the ending and don’t often bother with the mess in between. But it is good to see the mess, for our own lives are full of it. We too experience many a dark day when the death of God seems more real than his resurrection. Whatever we would prefer, death and doubt are as much a part of the Christian experience as life and hope, and even Easter does not fully erase this paradox.
The tensions and disagreements (nay, contradictions) between the Gospel accounts are too often dismissed or ignored, but today is a good day to remember them. We know Jesus was crucified on Friday, and that on Sunday his tomb was found empty, almost certainly by some of the women who had been following him. We know that in the coming weeks his disciples became convinced, in spite of themselves, that Jesus was alive again. But we know also of their initial doubts; their confusion has been canonized into the scattered reports of Jesus’ appearances.
In a couple of posts at Exploring our Matrix, James McGrath explores these tensions, but they cay be summarized easily: Who first visited the tomb? Women, certainly, but which ones? The four Gospels disagree. And what did they see there? An angel, or was it a young man? Sitting on the rolled-back stone as in Matthew? Or in the tomb as in Mark? Or were there two as in Luke and John? What about the disciples? Did they run to the tomb themselves as John claims? Or was it only later – the Gospels disagree on where – that they first saw him? Ignoring these tensions would be dishonest, but also unhelpful. The truth is that whatever we believe about Easter, we are left with reconstructions, ambiguities, doubt. God, it seems, did not see fit to give us an unquestionable account; the Gospels have not been harmonized, and we can be grateful for that.
For doubt is not merely negative; it is purifying, both historically and personally. It reminds us of our finit perspectives, that the experience of God is always a little beyond us, broader than we can take in. It leaves us grasping, and that is a good thing. Garrison Keillor expresses this better than I can (HT: Shuck and Jive):
There is comfort for the doubter in the Passion story. You are not alone. Jesus’s cry from the cross was a cry of incredulity. The apostle [Peter] denied even knowing Jesus three times. The guy spent years with Jesus, saw the miracles up close, the raising of Lazarus, the demons cast out, the sick healed, the water-walking trick, all of the special effects, but when the cards were down, he said, “Who? Me? No way.”
He repented. I would too, but not quite yet.
Skepticism is a stimulant, not to be repressed. It is an antidote to smugness and the great glow of satisfaction one gains from being right. You know the self-righteous — I’ve been one myself — the little extra topspin they put on the truth, their ostentatious modesty, the pleasure they take in being beautifully modulated and cool and correct when others are falling apart. Jesus was rougher on those people than He was on the adulterers and prostitutes.
So I will sit in the doubter’s chair for a while and see what is to be learned back there.
On Holy Saturday, we could all spend some time in that chair.