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

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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'

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