"The Dead Christ," a 19th-century sculpture by John Hogan, resting in St. Finnbarr's Church in Cork, Ireland
Holy Saturday | Facing/Re-facing Death
Hebrews 2:8b-9, 14-15
(8b-9) At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
(14-15) Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
On Holy Saturday, in 2012, our family attended the memorial service honoring the life of my neighbor's wife. She died on the Wednesday preceding -- after a two-year face-off with cancer.
On Good Friday, I had watched him mow his lawn. Incredibly mundane stuff, considering the week. On that Thursday, the day after his wife died, my wife had watched him tenderly feed his cat on the front porch and then adjust something small in one of his flower beds. I could only suppose -- in the wake of his wife's death -- there would be far greater adjustments as the sadness and disorientation settled in.
So as my sons and I were shooting hoops in a rousing game of H-O-R-S-E on our portable basketball goal along the sidewalk, there was the sight of my neighbor, slowly pushing a gas-fueled machine back and forth over something that at least was still evidencing life. This image, along with the sculptor's image above, is emblematic of the context for the scripture writer's realism: "At present we do not yet see everything in subjection to him [Christ]." Not everything has been completely or ultimately reconciled.
Writing several decades post-Resurrection, the writer is admitting: all is not precisely as it should be. For example, among other things, death is very much hanging around. Still. Which is exactly the strong sentiment of Holy Saturday.
During my neighbor's wife's memorial service, I listened intently as various people, in effect, tried to come to a sort-of terms about her death. There was even a poetic analogy describing a sailboat and the open sea. Classic. But what I realized about Holy Saturday is this: Most every word that we can utter in the direction of death is merely grasping, if not flailing, at it. Despite our best human efforts, no word is able to comprehend let alone actually overwhelm death itself.
Except one. Or two, in the words of the scripture writer. Namely, Jesus. The particular, definitive Christian hope.
"So that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone," the scripture writer asserts. On Holy Saturday, here lies Jesus by the grace of God. Dead. The sculptor's image of the calm, dead Christ is starkly juxtaposed against the myriad of violent emotions we experience every day when we face death's intrusions. Yet, apparently, what we see in this image is a grace from God.
In Roman Catholic churches no liturgical mass accompanies the commemoration of Holy Saturday; the altar is stripped bare, as if to make the point. The emphasis is on sparseness, which is what death typically makes of life -- and then some.
But what this death -- Jesus' death -- does is considerably different. As the scripture writer says: This death destroys the one who has the power of death even as it delivers those of us who face death in fear. It is a fear that the scripture writer soberly likens to a lifetime of enslavement.
What Jesus will accomplish on Easter Sunday does not and will not relieve us from attending the memorial services of our neighbors. To be sure. However, that he -- namely, Jesus -- went all the way through death means that he has "re-faced" us in order to face this infernal enemy.