Holy Saturday is that brief silence. About the events of that day the Gospels say nothing, save for a bald statement in St Luke: 'On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.' But for the followers of Jesus, there could have been little of the renewing rest intended by the sabbath day.
There had always been the danger of arrest and even death, but they had believed it could not really happen. After all, he was the Christ, the Messiah promised and awaited.
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had warned them that he 'must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests, and be killed, and on the third day be raised'. But they hardly heard him, so impossible was the prophecy. Peter went so far as to rebuke Jesus, only to be rebuked in return: 'Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.'
At some time between the winter feast of Dedication and what was to be the last Passover Jesus would share with his disciples, they had gone away across the Jordan river for quiet and for safety. When news came of the death of Lazarus, Jesus at first delayed visiting Bethany, some three miles from Jerusalem, where Lazarus lived with his sisters, Martha and Mary. When eventually he decided to make the journey, Thomas, so aware of the danger, said, 'Let us go too, that we may die with him.'
They were bewildered that the one who was the Messiah could be in danger, yet ready to die for him if necessary. Or so it seemed and so they thought. Yet Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and the rest for the most part 'forsook him and fled'. So on that sabbath we call Holy Saturday, there was indeed emptiness: the emptiness of bereavement at the terrible death of the one whom they had loved and served; the searing guilt they they had let him down when he most needed them; anger at the betrayal by one of their own; barren hopelessness in face of a future whose gold had rusted.
There is in St John's Gospel a poignant phrase of immense dramatic effect. At the supper, Jesus warns the disciples that one of them will betray him. John (for he, surely, is the one described as the 'beloved disciple') asks him to identify the traitor. 'It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it,' Jesus tells him in a whisper. And to Judas he says, 'What you are going to do, do quickly.' So after receiving the morsel (John's narrative continues) he immediately went out; 'and it was night'.
In that phrase is encapsulated the nature of the battle in which Jesus was engaged; between light and darkness, between good and evil, between everlasting life and eternal death. Yet it is a battle whose outcome is foreshadowed by the triumphant proclamation by Jesus which follows the departure of the traitor into the night: 'Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified.'
In the sublime introduction to John's Gospel, the Evangelist speaks of Jesus as the one who was in the beginning with God, who indeed was God, the Word made flesh: 'In him was life and the life was the light of man. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.'
Archbishop William Temple (in Readings in St John's Gospel) suggests that this be translated, 'the darkness did not absorb it'. Temple asks us to imagine standing alone on some headland on a dark night: 'At the foot of the headland is a lighthouse or beacon, not casting rays on every side, but throwing one bar of light through the darkness.' This, he suggests, is the kind of image St John had before his mind. 'The divine light shines through the darkness of the world, cleaving it, but neither dispelling it nor quenched by it.'
Temple can say this with confidence because, like us, he knows the end of the story. Like the desolation of Bach's Crucifixus where the brief silence which follows it bursts forth into the triumphant Et resurrexit, so Good Friday and Holy Saturday will be followed by Easter Day. Jesus too can cap the desolate withdrawal of Judas Iscariot - and it was night - with the jubilant 'Now is the Son of man glorified', confident in the power of God in which he shares.
Yet it is a real battle. Fully human and fully divine, he has the power to sin, to deny the ground of his own being, to reject the very purpose for which he came. That was the terrifying gamble whlch God took when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The temptations of Jesus did not end in their wilderness rejection: to misuse his power for self-satisfaction, to gain followers the easy way, to reject divine authority for secular glory.
The enticements remained with him in the garden of Gethsemane, when in agony he contemplated the horror which was then almost upon him: 'Father, let this cup pass from me;' and again on the cross itself when his enemies taunted him: 'Come down from the cross and we will believe.' This indeed was the last temptation of Christ, and he was not overwhelmed by the darkness in its promise.
Yet for his dispirited followers, gathered together in sombre quiet on that sabbath day it did seem that there was nothing left but darkness. However much today's Christian, living the events of that first Holy Week, tries to enter the experience of their darkness, there is always the fact that we have read the last page.
We know that Easter Day brings resurrection, that he who was dead is alive, that the dead and broken body of Jesus, lifted down from the cross and laid in a tomb, is to rise on the third day. His disciples will speak with him, touch him, eat breakfast with him by the lake, have their doubts allayed by the reality of his resurrected and glorified body.
More than that, they will learn that all their faults, denials, failures, sins can be forgiven as if they had never been. They will find certain hope in the resurrection of Jesus that death is not the end that God's purpose for them transcends all human weakness and is for eternity.
The darkness of the Cross and emptiness of Holy Saturday exist only where human understanding is limited: the reality of God is restoration, redemption, glory, for all people and for all eternity.Reuse content