He was useless earlier than Christ Rose
Deep down, I knew I had cancer before the doctor diagnosed it. Still, the news was a shock. I was 27. My wife and I had just moved to a new city where we hardly knew a soul. We felt very alone.
Of course, we knew and believed God's promise to “never leave or leave you” (Deuteronomy 31: 6). The following week we sang the chorus in the church, "O love that won't let me go." But this knowledge was largely intellectual. Under these affirmations we tried for the first time to understand the meaning of God's presence in our new distinctive mortality.
The question of God's presence in mortality is central to an important but rarely recognized day in the Church's annual calendar. Good Friday is the strange day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday on which Jesus Christ – life itself! – lay dead in a grave. Before my diagnosis, I had never thought much about the importance of this fact. The Church had little difficulty in drawing attention to the death of Christ, and even less to the resurrection of Christ, but the death and death of Christ have found little expression in theology and liturgy. However, Good Friday has its own integrity. If the church can tune its ear to its frequency, which is so easily drowned out by the prevailing tones of Good Friday and Easter, it may be able to hear a profound word about the life and death between the cross and resurrection.
Christ the superhero
Christians have found two main ways to understand how and why Christ descended ad inferos (literally "to those below"). The prevailing interpretation of the early Church, what we might call the classical view, emphasized the glory and power of Christ as he descended into the underworld. The 4th century monk Rufinus of Aquileia was one of the first church fathers to write about it:
It is like a king going into a prison and going in and opening the doors, loosening the shackles, breaking the chains, bars and bolts into pieces, bringing out the prisoners and setting them free. … The king is said to have actually been in prison, but not under the same conditions as the prisoners detained there. They were in prison to be punished, he was to release them from the punishment.
Here the focus is on the divine power of Christ rather than his human suffering. Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, a Roman Catholic theologian, calls the descent of Christ "the beginning of the manifestation of his triumph over death and the first application of the fruits of redemption".
As a visual representation, consider the anastasis icon of the 13th century Maestà altarpiece (1). Works of art like this, which are less common today, have traditionally been placed on the altar behind the elements of the Eucharist. They carry collections of images that typically represent the entire life of Christ, from Gabriel's announcement to Mary to Christ's ascension and reign in heaven. The anastasis part (named after the Greek word for resurrection) shows how Christ is raised from the dead.
Image: Mondadori Portfolio / Hulton Art Collection / Getty Images
In this version, painted by the Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna, Jesus breaks the bronze doors and tramples the devil with his feet. Think of Jesus as a superhero, Jesus as Schwarzenegger, Jesus as Rambo, who infiltrates an enemy camp to save prisoners of war. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, wrote: "Christ did not descend into hell as a victim of the devil, but as a conqueror."
The Eastern Orthodox service, known as Matins of Great Saturday, expresses this feeling wonderfully. The gathering begins with a tomb (epitaphion) that was built in the center of the church and includes a reading of Psalm 119, a common tomb psalm.
However, the typically sad tone associated with this psalm is subtly subdued by a series of jubilant reactions that culminate with the chanting of the Easter troparion ("Christ rose from the dead, tramples death after death and on which give life in the graves ”), which signals the beginning of Easter joy. In fact, the dominant theme of worship is Christ's glorious and mighty triumph over death and the devil. The Great Saturday Matins are clearly an anticipated celebration of Christ's resurrection.
The shortcoming of the classic view of the descent of Christ, with all its theological wealth and truth, is that it plays too much for our collective desire to reach glory beyond suffering. In its effort to express Easter joy, it threatens to overshadow the theological integrity and meaning of Holy Saturday and thereby obscure it.
Christ the Sufferer
A different perspective gained importance during the Protestant Reformation, and its main representative was Johannes Calvin. Calvin rejected the idea that Christ saved the souls from limbo ("Nothing but a story!" He scoffed). Instead, he interpreted the descent to hell as a metaphorical expression of the unfathomable depths of Christ's suffering, especially spiritual suffering on the cross.
This interpretation reflected Calvin's emphasis on Christ's substitute Atonement. Following the old axiom of Gregory Nazianz: "What was not accepted (by Christ) was not healed," Calvin bravely claims that our spiritual healing requires that Christ not only suffers biological death, but also the "agony of the Death ”(Acts 2:24), the“ terrible abyss ”of feeling“ abandoned and alienated from God ”. For Calvin, descending to hell is the obvious theological next step in Christ's cry of decay from the cross: "My God, my God, why did you leave me?" (Mark 15:34). If Christ triumphs in this view, it is only through his passion.
This “passionate perspective” is expressed in another famous painting from the 13th century, the Isenheim altarpiece (2) by the German artists Nikolaus von Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald. This collection of pictures also shows scenes from the life of Christ. A notable feature of this altarpiece is that it opens like a cabinet with two sets of doors or "wings" painted with vivid Gospel images so that they can be opened or closed to different images at different times during the church year.
Image: WikiMedia Commons
Most of the days of the liturgical year, the wings of the Isenheim altar are closed and show the image of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Few graphs show the extent of Christ's physical and spiritual torment like this. However, open your wings and we encounter scenes that emphasize the divinity of Christ, such as the proclamation to Mary, the birth of Christ and the resurrection of Jesus. Open an additional set of wings and we see pictures of the church in eschatological splendor, represented by gilded saints. The glory of the Church is hidden in the divinity of Christ, but the divinity of Christ is hidden in his very human suffering and crucifixion.
If the Orthodox liturgy of Holy Saturday is essentially an anticipated Easter celebration, the lack of respect for Holy Saturday in many Protestant denominations makes it an expanded observance of Good Friday. For example, the Presbyterian Church (United States) Common Worship book ends its Good Friday liturgy with the instructions: “Everyone goes silent. The service continues on Easter night or on Easter day. "
This practice is in line with Calvin's emphasis on the cross as a healing center. For Calvin, as with the book of common worship, the “action” takes place on Friday, so to speak. For this reason, the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once claimed that Calvin had made Holy Saturday more or less "superfluous". Of course, a liturgical gap – a pregnant break – could be a useful way to deal with the meaning of Holy Saturday. In practice, however, we tend to consider the extended silence of Good Friday as a way to just keep going.
Hear Holy Saturday
Our two most common approaches to Holy Saturday are losing their full meaning. I would like to highlight a third line of interpretation that emphasizes the fact that God in Christ accepts our mortal nature and thereby makes it his own. Because it focuses on Christ's suffering with us, we can call it the compassionate view.
In addition to victory and suffering, this approach adds a radical confirmation of the entirety of the incarnation that is in no way canceled in the hours between the cross and the resurrection. God was indeed in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19), even when Christ was dead in a grave. This (admittedly unimaginable) thought, according to the late reformed theologian Alan Lewis, “forces us to think even more deeply about who God is and how God works: present in absentia and absent where most are present; alive in death and dead when it is most creative and life-giving. "
The body of the dead Christ in the grave (3) by the German painter and printer Hans Holbein the Younger from the 16th century is a rare attempt to represent Jesus Christ in the grave on Holy Saturday. It is also an appropriate pictorial representation of this third view.
Image: WikiMedia Commons
Eyes to heaven, mouth open, Jesus' continued relationship with the father is indicated. We have seen a similar expression on his face in images of the descent of the Holy Spirit when he was baptized. But Jesus is really dead (indicated by the rigor mortis and the gangrenous coloring of his hand and face). Although the grotesque realism of the picture coincides with the late medieval (macabre) sensations, the picture ultimately recalls the miracle of resurrection and the entirety of the Incarnation.
Such an interpretation of Holy Saturday has pastoral effects. In a world that lives a Good Friday life where God often appears to be absent, the merciful view tells us that if God can be present in the death of Jesus Christ, God can and is where he is most distant seems to be. During a visit to the famous Turin shroud in 2010, a linen cloth that some believe has the imprint of Jesus' face, Pope Benedict XVI reflected. The meaning of Holy Saturday for dealing with the spiritual darkness of our world today:
(A) After the last century, humanity has become particularly sensitive to the mystery of Holy Saturday. God's veiling is part of the spirituality of man today, in an existential way, almost unconsciously, as an emptiness that expands further in the heart. . . . After the two world wars, the concentration camps, the gulags, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our era has turned into Holy Saturday.
This is a decidedly modern interpretation of Christ's ancestry, emphasizing divine solidarity with the human condition of mortality and vulnerability. The Church has long taught that Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of the nature of both God and humanity. So if God was in the grave in Christ, death cannot be completely foreign to God, nor can it be completely foreign to the human condition. On this basis, Alan Lewis courageously claims: "The New Testament history of the cross and the empty tomb is the profound and dramatic confirmation of the Creator's yes to our mortality." This in no way denies the resurrection of Christ or hope for new creation, but confirms everyone as an eschatological excess. Resurrection and new creation are the result of God's abundant grace that goes beyond the possibilities of our present reality. As C. S. Lewis repeatedly wrote, "Nothing in you that hasn't died will ever be raised from the dead."
Is there a way for us to emphasize the importance of Holy Saturday? According to Augustine, is it possible to "see darkness, hear silence"? Maybe yes. In the revised common lesson, the liturgy of the word on Holy Saturday draws attention to the burial of Christ (John 19: 38–42 or Mt 27: 57–66) and at the same time strikes a balance between the recognition of the transience of human life (Job 14: 1–14) and the hope that Christ's redemption reaches the deepest points (1 Pet. 4: 1–8). In addition, the practice of observing Easter Vigil, although technically part of Easter Sunday, does not emphasize the tension between the already and the yet, which characterizes Christian life between the cross and the resurrection. Therefore, Easter night is an appropriate and desirable way to draw attention to Holy Saturday.
Church historian Eamon Duffy describes an interesting late medieval English practice related to Holy Week. Three armies (bread, the body of Christ in the Lord's Supper) were consecrated on Maundy Thursday. The first was used for communion on Thursday. The second was used for Good Friday communion. The third was placed in a pyx, which is a special container, then wrapped in linen and placed in a stone tomb on the north side of the church on Good Friday. In this way, medieval Christians literally buried the body of Christ. The faithful then kept watch until Easter morning when the host was brought back to his usual place above the altar. Contemporary high church Anglicans have an analogous practice: after they have consumed the entire host on Good Friday, the door to the tabernacle, in which the reserve sacrament (bread and wine from Communion, which is kept during the week for church services) is usually kept, remains open on Saturday to demonstrate the visible absence of the Body of Christ. These and other creative liturgies have the ability to find ways to express God's solidarity with humanity that can ultimately prevent "neither death nor life" (Romans 8: 38-39).
Of course, liturgies for many churches are not simply formulated out of nothing, but are specific historical traditions that the church picks up and implements. Some churches may have more freedom to improvise than others. However, anyone who repeats the Creed must accept the meaning of Holy Saturday when "it descended". Whatever else it means, this sentence proclaims that God's solidarity with the human condition extends at least six feet underground. Even in the grave, Jesus is still Immanuel, God with us.
Now when I think about my experience of cancer diagnosis and successful treatment, I cannot avoid seeing my life in the light of Holy Saturday – in all its dimensions. Christ actually won over death and Hades. He also suffered from the spiritual suffering we are experiencing. But above all, he's with us.
Travis Ryan Pickell is deputy director for university engagement at Anselm House in St. Paul, Minnesota.