Holy Saturday must have felt like the worst day in all of history. There had been bad days before, but this, the disciples agreed, this was as bad as it could get.
When did that hope begin to fray? Was it outside Jerusalem, when Jesus looked down on the city and foresaw his own death, and began to cry? Maybe it was inside the city, where the religious leaders were on edge more than ever. They used to debate, argue and judge. Now their questions carried daggers, and they used their words to conceal dangerous traps.
The menace that hung in the air that week took its toll on the disciples every time they breathed. The land was parched for want of justice, and people in the crowd itched for Jesus to light the fire of revolution. The leaders of the people knew this, and they looked at him with fear and worry and undisguised hatred.
Even Jesus himself seemed to be losing control. In the Temple he hurled one stream of invective after another at his opponents, and he talked about his death more and more as each day passed. The disciples closed ranks and talked, and when Thursday night came they told him they had two swords. Hope, still strong, had begun to stumble a little.
That night the soldiers came without warning and arrested Jesus. For a moment panic set in, but hope remained. And why shouldn't it? Peter and the other disciples had seen Jesus in tough spots before, and he always managed to get out of them.
Just in the past week, they had seen the Pharisees and the Sadducees and even the Herodians lob one tough question after another after Jesus. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? If a woman gets married to seven husbands and each one dies without her ever having a child, whose wife will she be at the Resurrection? Who gave you the authority to make such a scene in the Temple?
Every question masked a sword pointed at Jesus' throat. All week long the questioners had swung them at him in an effort to show that this messiah bled, and all week long Jesus avoided taking a single hit. The Sanhedrin had it in for him, everyone knew that. They had tried to take Jesus down before and it never worked. Pilate was a brutal dictator, but if the best minds of the Sanhedrin couldn't trap Jesus, how could a Roman? And if it did go wrong, there was still the Passover Amnesty.
And yet, somehow it did go wrong. Pilate and the Sanhedrin didn't let Jesus go. He didn't pull off a last-minute miracle, and somebody else was released for the amnesty, who didn't deserve it. Jesus was convicted and sentenced, and he died gurgling blood like a common thief. Not knowing what else to do, the disciples went and hid, hoping it was all some horrible nightmare.
Except it wasn't a nightmare. The sun came up Saturday morning, and Jesus was dead. They had thought Jesus was the messiah, sent by God, and now he was dead, and people don't get better from being dead. Everyone knew that, and if they doubted, all they had to do was to look inside some of the tombs outside the city. Jesus was dead, and hope with him.
How long do you think it took until Peter felt like an idiot? Three years ago he'd had a wife, a home and a job. Now he had no way to support a wife or family, and the authorities were watching him to see if he would follow the example of Jesus and try to start a movement of his own.
What about John and James? They were the sons of a prominent rabbi, a member of the Sanhedrin. Their father, Zebedee, owned a fishing business, one that they had stood to inherit. They had given that up and now faced a lifetime of poverty.
Matthew probably had lost the most, financially. Before he became a disciple of Jesus, Matthew had been a tax collector working with the Romans. With the authority and power of Rome behind him, he not only could compel people to pay taxes, he could extort as much money as he wanted them for his own livelihood. People had pretended to be his friends because of his wealth and influence, but that had all changed three years ago. Anyone who remembered him now would remember him as a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, guaranteeing his life would be unpleasant and short.
And on it went for each of the other disciples. They had wasted three years of their lives on a dream, for nothing, for a man who had been good with words. He seemed to have come right out of the old days, when prophets knew how to perform miracles. but in the end he was just a man like every other man. Just as human. Just as mortal.
Jesus had promised them all something worth believing in. “The Kingdom of God has arrived,” he had told them. “Mountains will be laid low, and the valley will be raised up. The rich and powerful will use their wealth and influence to serve the poor instead of themselves. The outcast will be an honored guest at the feast. Women will enjoy the same respect afforded men. Everyone will have the chance to come in and sit at the table together. There will be justice.”
Now Jesus was dead, and all those promises had died with him. That whole Kingdom of God thing? Not going to happen.
I know someone out there is reading this who wants to interrupt and say that Sunday is coming. But here's the thing about Sunday: When it's Saturday, you can't see Sunday. It's too far off. On Friday you can hope for a miracle, but if you put your head inside the tomb on Saturday, there's a body there.
The body is wrapped in linen that's been stained with thickening blood and ooze, and it smells awful. The stench of death is so strong that you want to gag. They took Jesus on Friday and they flayed the skin from his back, and after they had tortured him to death, they shoved a spear in his side. All those smells that the body keeps inside have been brought out into the open. You can touch the body, but it's not going to move for you, no matter what you do. The muscles are stiff with rigor mortis. No one will answer when you call, and there's no one to give you hope. He's dead.
Saturday is an agonizing place to be. You believed with all your heart all that you had been told about this man, but suddenly that belief just isn't enough. You staked your hopes, your faith, your future and your very identity on Jesus, and suddenly it turns out that he's not who you thought he was.
How on earth could I ever have believed Jesus was the Son of God? That's a question you'll ask yourself a lot on Saturday, if you're willing to be honest with yourself. Did you honestly think that people rise from the dead? You know better than that, and so did the disciples. The tombstones of Judea were as full as the graveyards of the 21st century. Check out your family tree sometime. You won't have to go back very many generations before you find withered branches. Dead is permanent. You know that in your very bones.
It's surprisingly easy to kill Jesus. I've seen parents do it by rejecting their children over their sexual orientation or gender identity. I've seen churches do it by telling women that they have no place in ministry, or no right to teach; and turning liberation into a prison. When Christ is dead, his promises of love and value have no meaning.
I've seen educators kill Jesus by suppressing science and concealing history. One day, their students get older and discover what they weren't taught in school. They realize that evolutionary biology actually makes a lot of sense, and so does the rest of science. Or they discover the side of history Christians are ashamed of: jim crow injustice, chauvanism, terrorism and war; and they wonder what else we're not owning up to. When Christ is dead, his claim to be the truth rings hollow.
Sometimes life itself is enough to kill Jesus with deep pains and bottomless griefs that have neither reason nor explanation. When Christ is dead, there is no end to suffering or to tears. All that there is, is an endless Saturday, a body in the grave, with no way out.
Holy Saturday is a place of reckoning. Some of us may come here only once, for a little while, and then we leave. Others of us return again and again. Sometimes Saturday lasts only a day; sometimes it lasts for years.
Come in to the tomb, Christian. Make your peace with the end of Holy Week, and listen to the worms moving. It's Holy Saturday, and Christ's body isn't going anywhere.
Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.