Faith & Reason: The Christian gift is to convert despair into humour

Holy Saturday is an awkward interval between desolation and joy. When we learn to laugh at ourselves, we can accept forgiveness

Share

An old churchwarden once told me of an Easter Eve ceremony at her church. The congregation was gathered outside the West Door for the lighting of the Easter fire and the procession into the darkened church: one of the most breathtakingly mystical moments in the Easter liturgy. But the evening was blustery. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," the priest was heard to mutter, as the wind blew out match after match.

An old churchwarden once told me of an Easter Eve ceremony at her church. The congregation was gathered outside the West Door for the lighting of the Easter fire and the procession into the darkened church: one of the most breathtakingly mystical moments in the Easter liturgy. But the evening was blustery. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," the priest was heard to mutter, as the wind blew out match after match.

One of the lessons drummed into would-be priests at theological college is that holiness seldom just happens. Anyone tempted to rely on last-minute inspiration from the Holy Spirit is told, drily, that the Spirit prefers to visit priests as they prepare in their studies, a few days earlier. Put in some hard graft, plenty of preparation, and, with luck, services will look effortless and spontaneous. At Easter, he or she isn't the only one. Throughout today, countless women (and it is almost exclusively women) will be hard at work decorating thousands of churches after the flowerless weeks of Lent. Yesterday, as the crucifixion was re-encountered, the churches were bleak and barren, the linen stripped out, the monuments covered. Tomorrow, as the resurrection is celebrated, the churches will be glorious.

Today, though, Holy Saturday, is impossible to get any sort of emotional hold on. The searing liturgies of Good Friday have left their mark, and we wander about as if, well, as if someone close to us has died. On the other hand, we know that the resurrection has already happened, that the tomb has been empty for nearly 2,000 years. What is the emotion that sits between desolation and joy? The nearest thing is hope; but it's a volatile feeling, and so on Holy Saturday Christians bury themselves in hard work, cleaning, polishing, decorating. In this way, Easter comes not as some great cellophaned and beribboned gift from the sky, but is something we make ourselves, and all the more real for that.

Even Jesus gets dragged in and given something to do. The early Christian theologians were concerned about those who had died in the past without getting the chance to hear Jesus. For this reason, and on tenuous biblical evidence, they had Jesus descending into hell and preaching to all who resided there. The doctrine is mentioned in two of the Church's creeds, but not the third, so is presumably true by a two-thirds majority. The image that comes to my mind is of Christ trekking round a bank-holiday supermarket, buying supplies for the rest of the Easter holiday, but perhaps that's just projecting my idea of hell on to him.

The oddness of today takes on a greater significance if we adopt the argument of those who say that, in essence, we live permanently in Holy Saturday. We are sinful, and yet saved; saved, yet sinful. The act that rescued us from evil has taken place, and yet evil persists, and we are caught up in it. On a spiritual level (whatever that is), we must confront our complicity in the murder of Christ. The biblical record suggests that Jesus allowed himself to hope that death was not inevitable. After all, a palm-waving crowd had cheered him into Jerusalem when he arrived to confront the religious authorities. We have seen plenty of examples from Eastern Europe in recent months of the power that can be wielded by an unarmed opposition leader if he has the active support of the masses. But, although the orange-waving crowds took courage from each other, the decision to camp out in a draughty square had to be taken by each frightened individual. And this is us. We are not, as a rule, the psychopaths who bang in the nails; we are members of the crowd of followers who stand around and watch the tragedy unfold.

Our sins aren't even bold, or Faustian. We are simply the ones who melt away; who, when Jesus is taken, suddenly find other things that need our attention. Freedom Square, the Martyrs' Square are empty, when all that was needed to turn tragedy to triumph was our presence.

Living in Holy Saturday is to live with this raw knowledge of ourselves. We work hard, partly to distract ourselves, partly because we feel the need to atone. And yet, as we work, a miracle is happening, has happened (tenses have little meaning here). The more we know ourselves, the more we know ourselves to be forgiven. The Christian gift is this: to turn despair into humour. In classical theatre, the technical definition of a tragedy is a drama in which the hero dies. If he doesn't, then it's a comedy. Because the resurrection has happened/will happen, we are living in a unique, divine comedy. Instead of being depressed about our failings, we are invited to see them as absurd, comic; and to laugh at ourselves is to accept forgiveness.

As the day dims, and we prepare to enter the darkened church, we celebrate with the priest whose profanities have been forgiven. And we worship the God who blew the matches out.

Paul Handley is Editor of the 'Church Times'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

 

Political satire is funny, but it also causes cynicism and apathy

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links