There is a stillness to Holy Saturday which is quite unlike any other time of the year.
The quiet between Christmas Day and new year’s is an exhaustion, not least from trying to keep events focussed on God’s place in the stories, amidst the corrosive demands both of an hysterical marketplace and childish sentimentality. This season of the year has a different quality of quietness, though it also has its subversions, more subtle and more insidious than Christmas. Two years ago, one made its way to the movies
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, was a depiction of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. The script was based on an 18th century work, a transcription of the meditations on the passion by an Augustinian nun, Sister Anne Emmerich. It was a brutal, savage depiction of an idea that Jesus suffered because God demanded his life in compensation for the affront of human sin.
It was the latest and very gruesome incarnation of an old thread running through Christian theology, from Ambrose to Anselm and beyond, that only the violent sacrifice of a perfect and sinless Jesus could appease a God whose honour had been offended, and whose anger had been aroused by sinful human beings.
On both sides of the Atlantic, churches block-booked entire cinemas. The faithful were told that this movie showed how it really was, this is what people on the edge of Christian faith need to see, in order to turn to Jesus. The problem was that, for many, it backfired. Whatever the film evoked in our feelings for Jesus, it did not instill any sense of gratitude to God. While one could believe in a divine father who might demand such things of his son, one could not love such a God, who emerges as brutal, affronted and barbaric.
Once you begin to believe in a God who demands compensation, you inherit a spirituality which is always demanding that we give more to assuage our sense of imperfection and failure to live as we feel we are required. This may be why churches which espouse such an understanding of God and sacrifice, also have large incomes.
There is another view of what Jesus accomplished, but it is not so straightforward, does not slot neatly into a Christian basics class. In the sermon we call the Letter to the Hebrews in the Christian Canon, the writer is addressing a congregation creaking under the demands of a compensation demanding deity. The writer describes Jesus as a great High Priest, one who walked as we do, experienced life as we do, endured the same trials as we do but, in all he did, he stayed on track. He did not allow the dark powers to set the terms of engagement. Unlike the War on Terror, in which we have mimicked and multiplied the violence of those who provoked it, Jesus did not return evil for evil, he never compromised his humanity.
The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ last days in terms of offering himself as a sacrifice in the temple of God, not as one taking the punishment necessary to appease an angry God, but as a whole human life fully lived and uncompromised, life as it was created to be.
It matters what we think Jesus accomplished on Good Friday, because from it we decide what God demands us to be and do. Mel Gibson and those who think like him can only deliver us into the hands of a vengeful God, whose demands lead to a relationship between father and son which scarcely bears contemplation. The writer to the Hebrews presents us with a Jesus who is able to let evil pass through him, and not knock him off his course; a Jesus who, in the midst of suffering, cries out, “with prayers and supplications … to the one who was able to save.”
There is a stillness to Holy Saturday which is quite unlike any other time of the year, it is a lull before the end of the story, Jesus’ story and our story. For Jesus it will be the empty tomb, but the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters so, in the stillness, we contemplate what is possible for us to follow his way to become fully human.