Today’s reading serves as an introduction to Holy Saturday, though Mark does not even mention it. There is only one sentence in all four Gospels which deals with that day. Luke states: But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
We have a difficulty with this day because we have read the story before. We know how it ends. But we have to live through the whole of this day, this year, trying to live as though we did not know what is going to happen tomorrow. Because the disciples and his followers did not know. Their Saturday was very, very dark.
Remember how children want us to read certain stories at bedtime, over and over. And you dare not skip a paragraph, to try to shorten it. It’s not because they have forgotten the story. They live the story over again, enjoying its suspense, its unfolding narrative, its story.
I have lived my life with story. As a reader, writer, and teacher of literature, I live and breathe story. I tell stories to my grandchildren. I tell them to myself in my mind, all the time. Stories have a life all of their own. The Bible and the Gospel are built on stories. All those stories are connected to one story, ultimately.
As we get more mature at reading, we learn to read stories better. That’s why adults understand jokes better than children do. We read the subtexts that are in jokes. If someone says, “There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman in a pub”, we know there is a joke coming, and we know what sort of joke it will be.
Suppose I wrote a story that started: There was a fierce dragon that lived on the very top of a craggy cliff, high in the Misty Mountains at the edge of the world. Sometimes it would come down to the towns and kill cattle or even, occasionally, carry off a child. Many had ventured out to try to capture or kill it, but none had returned. One day, a traveller arrived in the town. He rode a white mare. He was wearing brown leather breeches, a green tunic and a sky-blue cloak.
Even a child knows already that this man is going to succeed where all others have failed. The dragon is as good as dead, already. The more alert readers will have noted that the man’s clothes are the colour of earth and sky, and his horse is pure and virginal. The very alert readers will have recognised that with the coming of the white mare and the earth-man, all of humanity, earth and nature have combined in a vaguely intimate and sexually-complementary way to overcome the foreign menace that has invaded their sphere. For these readers, this story is not just a dragon-slaying yarn; it is a story of elemental struggle and passion.
This Easter story did not start out as a three day story. It did not have chapter headings, of which the last read: The Joy of the Resurrection. It started out as a real-life drama where Jesus, our beloved Messiah and miracle-working Teacher-Friend, with whom we have travelled for three years, was arrested, unjustly accused, terribly abused, and finally crucified. And now he is dead.
And now he is dead.
And I am still here.
And it is very, very quiet. Nobody speaks, because there is nothing to say. The Sabbath day comes. No-one eats much. Perhaps we even skip synagogue, because there doesn’t seem like much point. And we don’t really want to be seen anyway. It’s still dangerous out there.
Some of us will know what it is like the day after our wife or husband, son or daughter has died. The house is silent. There seems no point to even being here. Everything we see reminds us of him or her. The silliest little thing reduces us to helpless, miserable, sobbing tears. Because we know that death is final.
The disciples knew that even more than we do. They had not yet even heard of a real resurrection. They were not living in the day before tomorrow; they were living in the day after yesterday. It was very, very bleak.
They were living in an agonising contradiction. Jesus had said he was the Messiah. He had spoken of his everlasting Kingdom. But now he was dead. Everything was lost. Everything. But we are still alive. How shall we then live?
You and I also live in an agonising contradiction. We know the kingdom is inaugurated, though not complete. We still pray every week with our fellow-believers: Your Kingdom come. We know about the resurrection. We know about the promise that we, too, will be resurrected. That our loved ones will live again. That our life will be forever with the King.
But now we live in pain. In broken relationships. In poverty, or loss of job. In shame, or loss of self-respect or respect by others. In personal despair. In physical pain of cancer, or chronic condition, or the slow demise of Alzheimer’s or Motor Neurone disease.
But we are not living in Holy Saturday, because despite the darkness of our lives – and it can be very, very dark, indeed – we have read the next chapter of the story. It sits in our mind, and we cannot forget it. On the first day of the week, early in the morning…
But today we cannot hear those words. Today we must sit in darkness so deep that there is no light that can penetrate it. Today we are in the valley of the shadow of death, and He is not with us. There is no rod nor staff to comfort me. My head is aching with the pain and memories of yesterday; it is not being anointed with oil by my beloved. My cup is nowhere near full, and there is no table set for me, though I am certainly in the midst of my enemies. I find neither goodness nor mercy.
And yet, and yet… This story started out with all the elements of a story where more had been suggested, more promised. But no; the plot is broken. We’ve looked ahead and there is only one more page. Surely not enough to turn this tragedy around.
Mark said nothing about this day. I have probably said far too much. Let us live through it, trying to feel what it would be like if Jesus were dead, and lying stiff in a tomb, slowly turning to dust. There is no more story to be told, and all the stories we loved to hear don’t make sense anymore.