Faith & reason: A day to watch and wait in silence

Dr Martyn Percy, Chaplain of Christ's College, Cambridge, concludes our series for Holy Week with a reflection on Holy Saturday: a day of vigil, a prelude to a mystery.
We have passed Good Friday, and tomorrow it will be Easter. The visual identity of these is clear. The end of Lent is stark - no flowers, decoration or celebration - and culminates with a single image: one man, pathetic, hanging on a cross: a victim of capital punishment, he slumps there, stoically. Easter Day, by contrast, is a rush of colour: golds, whites and yellows; festivity and flowers. Between the worlds of these two extremes stands Holy Saturday, its mood subdued yet charged with anticipation.

For many people the problem with Holy Saturday is that there is nothing actually to see. The Wondrous Cross is not there to be surveyed, but it is not yet time to stare into the empty tomb. The time of vigil has come, and we wait in silence, stillness and in the darkness. In some ways, this is just as well. The visual images of Good Friday - in paintings, films and television - are over-familiar, almost prosaic. All too often, Jesus looks quite solemn but resigned on his cross; passively accepting his fate. Pain, in one still portrait, is not easy to capture, and the very act of committ-ing that event to canvas or to the screen is an act that loses something of the reality of Good Friday.

But suppose we just shut our eyes and listen. A few years ago a short play for radio told the story of Genesis i-iii through two lowly back- room angels whose task in God's workshop was to dub the sound on to creation. As they talk about the sounds to be made by fish, birds, animals, seas and rivers, attention focuses on a box in the corner of the sound workshop. "That box," says the senior to the junior, "is full of sounds you don't want to hear . . . a child crying, a mother dying, the sound of war . . . screams, the rattle of death . . . Once you open the box, you'll release the noises of chaos, and you'll never get them back in."

Inevitably the young angel, in the absence of his mentor, prises open the lid and lifts it slightly. He hears no scream, nor the sound of war - just the crunch of teeth into a crisp green apple.

Lent is about acknowledging that all those sounds have been let out long ago; we cannot control them. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are about hearing them contract and be redeemed in the events of the cross and resurrection. It is the sound of fury on Good Friday that cancels out the sound of the Fall, and brings the peace of Easter on a lush spring day. Listening in silence, and imagining, stops us being seduced by the anodyne portrayals that turn the crucifixion into a still frame - a moment of sacred, but ultimately safe, contemplation. So, Holy Saturday is a prelude to a mystery: one that defies sight. That is why Wittgenstein reminds us that "whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent". So silence it must be, today. The poet Sylvia Sands puts it like this:

Creation takes Him to her heart


Wraps rock-green darkness

Around his tortured limbs.

The hidden walls


With anticipation;

While little animals who live beneath the earth


Animals had watched

His lonely

Cattle-shed birth.


They keep vigil at his wake . . .



These little listening animals,

For the first creative


Which herald

The earthquake


His resurrection.

Good Friday and Easter Sunday are linked by a fierce but tender sound - that of earth quaking and ground breaking. But they carry different messages. Tonight, all over the world, people will sit in silence and in the darkness between these sounds. In the vigil they keep, they will hear the story of their redemption, long, long ago. They will wait and watch for a spark, that first flame of the Easter Light.

At its appearance, there will be a new noise- shouts of acclamation and the sound of celebration. And the Silenced Word will speak once more.