Between Cross & Resurrection – A Theology of Holy Saturday
(Eerdmans, 2001, 477 pages)
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We have just commemorated the crucifixion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This book review is intentionally done the week after to provoke an ongoing meditation on this high drama of God’s salvation story.
“Faith’s supreme drama tells of three days which form the center and the turning point of history. Yet ironically, the center of the drama itself is an empty space. (Prologue, p. 1) So begins Alan E Lewis’ theological reflection on Holy Saturday, the neglected day between the Cross and the Resurrection.
“What keeps the heart of the Christian church beating, and its blood circulating, if not the story of those days, so endlessly rehearsed, with such infinite variety and such steadfast unalterableness?” (Prologue, page 4)
This book has a deceptively simple three part outline, Hearing the Story, Thinking the Story and Living the Story. You may even have the impression that this is a devotional work. It is and much more! If you enjoy a good theological read, where the subject matter is unusual but captivating, and the writing is precise and elegant, you will want to read this book.
A review on the back page reads, “Theologians rarely write with an elegant style. Alan Lewis is an exception. His is a beautiful book reflecting on the meaning of Holy Saturday, the hiatus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when Jesus lay dead in the tomb and his disciples experienced the absence of God. . . . Original.”
Certainly, Holy Saturday, much less a theology of it, is a subject unfamiliar and rare, even practically irrelevant. The term is totally unheard of in Christian vocabulary, and in our annual rites of remembrance and celebration. Good Friday, yes; Easter Sunday, certainly; but what is Holy Saturday? Our Easter experience is a two days event, not three. Surely, we are merely following the correct biblical records and emphasis. None of the gospel writers or the apostle Paul mentioned anything explicitly about a Holy Saturday. But the New Testament writers never explicitly wrote about God as a three-person God either. Nor for the matter, was the term “Great Commission” found in the Bible.
Lewis is a conscientious and thorough theologian. In Part One, Hearing the Story, he is concerned that we hear, “in the simplest terms, what it is that the New Testament’s gospel story itself declares to us.” (p.11). As a professional theologian, he employs his considerable skills, as it were, to clear the airways, so cluttered with many diverse and alternate views about what the gospel story is about: mere story, human story, only literature or myth etc. He asks how is the story related to, or how should it be related to truth? (p.11) In truth, we will always listen through our own filters of experience, as well as theological and denominational bent. But in Lewis’ scholarly and sincere clarification, we are at least more aware of how poorly we have been hearing. I appreciate anew how often we sit smugly on our own settled answers when, often times, these were answers to a wrong set of questions in the first place. Lewis, however, raises and poses questions with courage and bluntness:
“…the Good Friday scene, when observed from the first Easter Saturday, is intrinsically unbearable.
What do we see if we make the effort and muster the courage to examine the cross of Jesus Christ from the second-day frontier, looking back without knowledge of the future? The sight is melancholy, terminal, disastrous.” (p. 43)
“Yet if we are genuinely to hear the gospel as it unfolds, we must ruthlessly postpone all such triumphal, redemptive, saving thoughts and texts which might modify the original, stark, accusatory verdict of the second day. On the day after his death Jesus is no hero, saviour, or redeemer. He is dead and gone, convicted as a sinner, a rebel and blasphemer, who had paid the price of tragic failure. He simply died, and his cause died with him, falsified and finished.” (p.45)
There are sharp propositions. Not the usual questions and considerations that we focus on during the Easter season. But Lewis’ posers then become all the more instructive and searching for us. For just as dust gathers over time, so can clutter and presumptuousness clog up our faith. These need to be cleared and challenged if we want to grow deeper in faith, in our theological understanding to live a vibrant Christian life.
Part Two: Thinking the Story, follows logically once we have heard the story with some clarity and focus. The title for Chapter Five provides the key to help us understand Lewis’ purpose in part two of his work: Doctrine safeguards story. He wrote: “…the church cannot live by narrative alone, the simply telling and retelling of stories… Any story which claims to be telling the truth, and through which the hearer intuitively grasps the truth and is in turn grasped by it, initiates a quest of the mind for knowledge, wisdom, understanding.” (p. 135)
Theology and doctrine then, perform the important function of criticism, not the negative sense of tearing down, quarrelling, making faith abstract and remote, but in the positive sense of examining every new retelling to see that, in the multiple retelling over the years, the core of the story is not diluted, displaced, or worse, has disappeared. So Lewis argues that “the concepts of theology and their ordering as doctrines … help the church determine what may or may not be said by way of expressing and reflecting on its normative stories.” (p.137) “Doctrine was constructed in defense of story: to keep the narrative of salvation alive and true, persuasive and redemptive.” (p. 138) And so, Lewis goes on to relate the story with the doctrines of Trinity, Christology etc.
But the story will also contribute to the ongoing reform of doctrine (Chapter six). And as the theology of Holy Saturday must necessarily deal with the death of God, a truth, concept that is enigmatic, even unacceptable, he examines the work of various theologians of influence on this subject. The work of the Greek Cappadocian Fathers and the Latin Church Father Augustine in their wrestling with the Trinity and the passion of God are compared. More currently, the contributions of the work of Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann, Eberhard Jungel are studied. (Chapter Seven)
Lewis could have concluded his study after providing such a thorough and helpful groundwork and framework about the theology of Holy Saturday. But these will be incomplete without Part Three: Living the Story. This final part becomes a fitting climax to his excellent scholarship. Here, he asked “what it means to live this story in a world that is threatened with death and whose history is captive still to evil and injustice; and what it could mean for the church truly to carry the cross of the crucified God and be, in the dying world, the Body of Christ in whom the death of God occurred.” (p. 257)
A theology of Holy Saturday is closely related to theodicy, and Lewis did not evade the hard questions. He examined what it means to live the story in world history through a reflection of three terrible world events: Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Chernobyl, naming these events as Easter Saturday revisited. (Chapter Eight)
However, what made his work most poignant at this point was that in the course of his reflection about this “eerie, restless day of burial and waiting . . . which forces us to speak of hell, (this) day of godlessness and putrefaction (p.5, 43), he discovered he had cancer. So he himself underwent his own Easter Saturday experience, and added great authenticity to his concluding chapter, Living the Story in Personal Life (Chapter Nine). For this account, we respectfully let the author scholar speak for himself:
“To begin this concluding chapter, may “the author” break his own literary rules … long enough to become for a moment, “I” – the better to ask what it means for any human being to be an “I” in the light of Christ’s cross and grave? Then let the author say that I embarked upon this study – rather presumptuously, I now suspect – not having undergone in personal life anything that could without hyperbole be labeled an “Easter Saturday” experience; but that I conclude this project no longer in that fortunate (or impoverished?) condition. For somewhere in the middle of its writing (spot the seam!) this volume sustained an interruption of many moons, and the fabric of my personal and vocational history a long, disabling gash.” (p. 403)
Further on, he wrote diffidently, “Such losses of appearance and identity, of dignity, control, and almost life itself, brought “Saturday” moments of farewell, grief, and preparations for the end, consequent upon the disappearance of tomorrow. For like the first Easter Saturday, this was a time of unbounding waiting, of hanging on – sometimes by the hour – without any guarantee of a future to be hung on for . . .” (p. 404)
Lewis passed away on February 19, 1994. This book became a monument to his Holy Saturday faith. How powerfully his work and his life illustrated the spirit of Holy Saturday, a nowhere day that can minister the deep grace of God into the brokenness of our world and our lives. In the Epilogue, he writes “…We began by listening – to a story, scriptural and credal, which itself told of silence…Yet in the story’s own silence we also heard language, a word of promise, of new beginnings and of life, divine and therefore human. Beyond the death of God, said the story, there is still God, resurrecting and creative; beyond the void, out the nothing, comes new existence, where despair makes way for joy and defeat for victory. (p. 463)
Holy Saturday, the day and the void between the cross and resurrection is thus a God ordained piece of the Easter story, one neglected by Christians today. It is a loss that we can recover with this work, which Lewis considered “to be his life’s work” (Preface, p.xii). John Alsup, Lewis’ former colleague and friend offered this advice when reading this book: “The reader is haunted throughout this book with a growing sense of pathos, with an awareness that this is not merely a topic but a passionate encounter. He or she journeys with the author from Cross to Resurrection through the lived-out death of Easter Saturday. This book is no casual read… (but) the rewards will be enormous.” (Foreword, p. x)
The last words deservedly should be from Lewis. Fittingly it was a beautifully crafted prayer addressed to the triune God. A theologian should be a pray-er, said one early Church Father. Allan Lewis can rightly be accorded that honour. As for his Trinitarian closing prayer, you will have to read it for yourself when you read the book. Have a wonderfully engaging read, both of mind, heart and spirit.
The chapel speaker last week is our own faculty member Dr Andrew Lee Boon Hui. He is our newest faculty recently returned from his doctoral studies. (He will be teaching courses on the Old Testament, Biblical Hebrew & Hermeneutics.)
Dr Lee spoke from Psalm 44, Israel’s national lament after being defeated by their enemies. The focus of his message was a reflection on suffering. Beginning with a personal and painful experience of his father’s sudden death seven years ago, he brought us through the psalm to trace how faith works its way through suffering to re-establish its bearing and anchor in God again.
The Psalm began on a confident note. Israel rejoiced in God’s power, that God is the divine warrior on Israel’s side. (Verses 1-8) But in the next section, there was such a contradictory shift that, some of the words and ideas expressed were, in Dr Lee’s words, “even blasphemous!” The repeated use of “You” (verses 9-16) carried overtones of charging God for not protecting Israel, even as the Psalmist agonized over God’s inscrutable ways. The reality of Israel’s terrible defeat made mockery of the Psalmist’s expectations of God, as expressed in the first part of this psalm.
What was poignant was that the Psalmist was equally clear that the tragedy of defeat was unmerited. Israel had not forgotten God, nor was false to His covenant. (Verse 17) But instead of blessings and victories, there was crushing defeat. This section (verses 17-22) showed the Psalmist questioning, but also revealed a right posture of questing hard after God’s thoughts. The crux of the matter was clearly stated in the puzzling phrase in verse 22: “Yet for your sake.” While we often read in the Old Testament narratives of how Israel was judged by God because of their unfaithfulness, here they suffered because God willed it to be so. There are no easy answers to the reality and mystery of suffering. Dr Lee reminded us that suffering is part and parcel of what it means to be Christian. Job in the Old Testament and the apostle Paul in the New Testament experienced and spoke about it. (See Phil 1:28; 2 Tim 3:12; Rom 8:18ff).
We can learn then from the Psalmist. For having wrestled with the reality of suffering, he went on to appeal to God’s faithfulness. (Verses 23-26) So the Psalmist in verse 26 called out to God: “Rise up, come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” This verse brings a connection and closure to verse 22. Earlier on, the Psalmist acknowledged to God that it was “for your sake that we are killed all the day long.” Now, in the same vein, he appealed to God to “redeem us for the sake of His steadfast love!”
“Do you believe what you believe when you suffer?” This was a challenge posed by Dr Lee as he closed his meditation on Psalm 44. He reminded us that we too can also be afflicted despite our faithfulness. The connection of faith is deeper than reason, theology and circumstances. Our theology will be tested. But, take heart, he concluded, pain and suffering are not the final words.
Mr Victor Wibowo will be speaker on 27 April 2011.
Rev Peter Chan will be speaker on 4 May 2011. Chapel begins at 12 pm. You are welcome to join us.