The day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is an odd break in the resurrection story, so how do we understand God’s apparent inaction here?
I have a love-hate relationship with space movies. Stars and planets and comets are fantastic, and yet so much can potentially go horribly wrong when we humans throw our fragile little bodies out into space. All it takes is one tiny part of a spaceship or spacesuit to malfunction, and everyone is either fried or frozen.
If I really want to make sure my existential dread is alive and well, I read about black holes. Did you know that scientists are finding proof that every noteworthy galaxy is more or less swirling around a supermassive black hole? Technically, we can’t even see these black holes. They drag stars toward themselves and produce unusual light waves which we can measure with certain satellites.
Quantum physicists theorize that a black hole’s gravity is so great that it bends light and may create its own kaleidoscopic of colors as a result.
If only we could get close enough to see this singularity. There’s just the little problem of it forming around the edge of black hole with the mass of four million suns, a maelstrom of crushing darkness so deep the eye can’t even perceive its presence.
Gravity’s rainbow… Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
It’s a shimmer of exquisite beauty on the fringe of a phenomenon we barely know how to comprehend beyond the dusty pages of mathematical equations and theory.
The Sovereign and Silent Lord
Very few people want to discuss the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This strange, dark day of limbo and mystery brings up too many uncomfortable questions.
Why didn’t Jesus rise on Saturday? Why did he wait a day in the grave when his followers were mourning and freaking out? Was he so committed to the Jewish Sabbath that he wouldn’t break it by coming back to life? That doesn’t really make sense for a guy who performed a fair few miracles on the Sabbath. Didn’t he have any concern for the people who were grieving for him, his own mother for example?
What was God doing in the darkness and silence of the grave?
“I believe one of the things the Lord most wants to deal with in his church is impatience,” David Wilkerson writes in a sermon. “Impatience is the root cause of all murmuring and complaining. Wherever there is impatience, there can be no faith.
“And God's people are notoriously impatient! Throughout history, we have constantly given God deadlines, crying, ‘Lord, how long do we have to pray about this? Where are you? If you don't do something soon, it will be too late.’
“Yet God doesn't answer that kind of prayer. Instead, he keeps on testing us to get at our impatient spirit.”
In his own ruminations on waiting for God, Jon Bloom wrote, “God only ordains his child's deep disappointment and profound suffering in order to give him or her far greater joy in the glory he is preparing to reveal (Romans 8:18).
“Before we know what Jesus is doing, circumstances can look all wrong. And we are tempted to interpret God’s apparent inaction as unloving, when in fact God is loving us in the most profound way he possibly can.”
We simply don’t have the perspective that God has on our circumstances. What seems pointless and even mean-spirited to us has grander purpose beyond what we can perceive. Why did Jesus wait a whole day in the grave? We don’t know for sure. Nowhere in the Bible is the answer laid out plainly.
What we do know is that God is good, he never acts without a purpose and he wants us to engage with what he’s doing, even when we’re confused or completely in the dark about his aims.
Jesus can be both sovereign and silent.
Our Dread and Fascination
Right after the famous verses in Exodus where God gives Israel the Ten Commandments, there’s a strange follow-up verse that doesn’t really mesh with a lot of our modern understandings of God and definitely doesn’t match up with any comforting ideas about the Lord.
“The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21 ESV).
That image is unsettling.
Why is God in the middle of the darkness? Why does he make Moses walk into that unnatural night? It’s not just kind of murky either; the verse describes it as a “thick darkness.”
If you’ve ever been out camping in a remote area or had to trek down into an unfinished basement without a light, you know this kind of gloom. It’s the sort where you can wave your fingers inches from your own nose and still see nothing. Being stuck in this kind of blackness is uncomfortable at best and disorienting or even terrifying at worst. It’s the kind of darkness that makes you think of death.
Rudolf Otto, in his studies on religions, coined the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans. He noted that encounters with the supernatural “wholly other” almost always resulted in dread and fascination.
This pretty well matches most biblical people’s reactions to God or angels. The Israelites wouldn’t go up on Mount Sinai because they were convinced they would die if they got that close to God’s presence (Exodus 20:18-19). The first time God descended on the tabernacle, Moses literally could not bring himself to enter it (Exodus 40:34-35).
Multiple times in the Old Testament, people touch the ark where God’s presence is, and they die instantly. Prophets who have a vision of heaven and God are usually badly shaken (Ezekiel 1:26-28). Angels show up, and people have very unsettled reactions (Joshua 5:13-15).
God is not a comfortable mystery; being in his presence can feel like it’s going to destroy us. Sometimes he resides in the deep darkness. Sometimes he offers no answers.
What he does do is invite us into the mystery, to join him in the dark and the silence.
Our Lives of Saturday Faith
It’s perhaps too easy to forget that the name Israel, the name for God’s people, means “struggles with God” (Genesis 32:28).
So often this passage is used as an example of “Pray harder, and God will give you what you want!” In our hurry to grab that much more comfortable message, we miss the fact that Jacob wrestled with a stranger through the long hours of the night. He left Jacob blessed but also exhausted, sleep-deprived and with a dislocated hip right before a day’s journey and meeting his brother who potentially wanted to kill him.
It easy to overlook the long night and how God deliberately leaves Jacob’s questions unanswered.
“Faith will either be like a Polaroid picture or an Etch-a-Sketch,” A. J. Swaboda wrote, reflecting on the three days of the Easter weekend. “They share one commonality: both will be shaken. For one, being shaken will cause faith to become clearer. For the other, shaking will cause the faith to blur and disappear.
“Martin Luther said Saturday was the day that God himself lay cold in the grave. Friday was death, Sunday was hope, but Saturday was that seemingly ignored middle day between them when God occupied a dirty grave in a little garden outside Jerusalem. Saturday is about waiting, about uncertainty, about not knowing what’ll happen.
“Saturday is ambiguity. It’s about, as one theologian put it, ‘muddling through’ when the future isn’t clear.
“So much of Christian faith is Saturday faith.”
God often invites us to meet him in the thick darkness of life’s cares and our griefs or fears. He may answer our questions with silence and troubling mystery.
In these moments, it’s worth remembering how much God spoke to Moses, so much so that the glory of the Lord’s presence even rubbed off on Moses’ face. Also, let’s not forget that Mary was waiting in a graveyard, waiting in the silence, and she was the first to meet a resurrected Jesus.
Stepping into the gloom and waiting in the silence for God is frightening, but it’s also often where he meets us most intimately.