The theologian Alan Lewis wrote his book Between Cross and Resurrection when he was dying of cancer, and one senses when reading the book that it is as much a personal pilgrimage as it is a theological exercise. The great Scottish theologian Tom Torrance said it was the best book he had ever read, and coming from a man like Torrance (who, it would seem, has read almost everything) this is high praise indeed.
Lewis was seeking to recapture the importance of Holy Saturday, which was given much theological emphasis during various periods of church history, but has been very neglected in our own day. He builds on Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschael, but also includes a galaxy of other significant thinkers, and adds many of his own original insights.
Lewis sees Easter Saturday as being a key to understanding what is refereed to as the Trideum, the three days of the Easter period. He points out that the church consistently sees the importance of the Friday and the Sunday but often ignores the importance of the Saturday. It is seen simply the day needed to fulfill prophecies such as the Messiah being three days in the heart of the earth, but to have no theological importance in and of itself.
However, Lewis believes that the Saturday is the key to understanding the Easter events and if we leap too quickly from the crucifixion to the resurrection we are in danger of failing to understand the depths of both events.
From the vantage point of Holy Saturday we have the opportunity to meditate on the deep darkness of Friday, to realize the enormity of the violation perpetrated on Golgotha, to let it sink in, to realize the depth of the tragedy, to feel the loss, to grieve the death, to hear the demons gloat, and to appropriately mourn the loss of what might have been.
Only after such a day, and not before, are we ready to appreciate the great reversal that took place on the Sunday, the glory of resurrection, the triumph of life over death, the vindication of the Son of God, and the dawning of a new day for the human race. Standing in Holy Saturday enables us to see into the abyss of what took place on the Friday and also positions us to appreciate the heights and the stunning reversal of what will take place on the Sunday. And it is to the detriment of both cross and resurrection that Holy Saturday has fallen into neglect in our own time.
When I first read Lewis, his construct of Holy Saturday did not seem in harmony with a number of verses and approaches to the atonement that I was familiar with. However, Lewis is an orthodox theologian, and by the end of the book most of my objections were dealt with. However, in a short segment like this there is no way I can tie up all the loose ends. If you have not yet read it, I would encourage you to do so. Not only will it deal with the objections that inevitably arise on hearing this brief overview of his approach, but it will fill in the rich history of Holy Saturday that has been part of the heritage of the church.
Lewis points out that there are two ways of hearing a story. There is the “…unrepeatable experience of first-time hearing,” a story whose ending is discovered as it happens—as with a first time reading of, say, Lord of the Rings—then there is the story which we have heard before and whose ending is familiar to us.
Lewis points out that the same is true of the passion and Easter. It is “…a story which must be told and heard, believed and interpreted, [in] two different ways at once—as a story whose ending is known, and as one whose ending is discovered only as it happens.”
When I read a book or watch a film for the second time I usually hope I can’t remember the ending, and in fact I try not to. This way I recapture some of the surprise of the first reading. And this is what we should at times do with the Trideum. While we know the end of the story, there is great value in reading the Friday narrative standing in the shoes of Peter and John without any knowledge of what is to take place in the future, and reflecting on the day as a stand alone event.
However, if we do remember a book or the film in detail, this does not spoil it if it is a classic. However, our approach to the work is different. We appreciate it in another way. Knowing the end can in fact contribute to our appreciation of the whole narrative. And this is true of the events of Easter. Knowing the end from the beginning allows us to interpret the whole. However, the problem is that this second way of reading the Easter narrative has become so dominant that we have lost the ability to read it as a story whose ending is not yet known.
Lewis continues…“For many it is a wholly familiar story, good news so often heard before as to have lost all novelty or shock,…” “…Christians…make no effort to imagine, what the story is when freshly heard, without the benefit of hindsight and the drawback of familiarity. Yet the familiar rendering of the Easter story, heard as it were on ‘mono,’ [simply as a story whose end is known] is a hopeless distortion of its true sound. For the comforting joy of Easter morning already from the start anesthetizes Friday’s pain [of the suffering and death of Christ]”
So in addition to reading the Easter story as one in which the end is known from the beginning, we must also strive to read the narrative as if we did not in fact know the events of the third day in advance. The liturgical churches have recognized this and it is reflected by what happens during Holy Week. Good Friday is very solemn, which makes no sense at all simply because Christ rose 2000 years ago. However, it is an attempt to move through the first two days of the Trideum appreciating them for what they are in and of themselves.
Lewis gives the illustration of going to the theatre. After the first two acts the hero is dead and buried and the curtain comes down. “…the inaction on the stage indicating not that we should wait expectantly for more, but that the play was ended: it was time to go home.” We begin to leave the theatre having seen a tragic production and suddenly the curtain rises and the lights come up again. It is not over as we had thought. To our surprise and delight there is another act to come. However, for today’s Christians the three-act play must first become a two-act play before it can be fully understood and appreciated.
This is how we must handle the passion of Christ if the impact of day one is to be understood in its full horror and ultimate tragedy, and day three in its unexpected reversal and glory. We must
try and think of the death of Jesus in its own right before his resurrection. We tend to leap from the first day (the dying) to the third day (the resurrection) and ignore the significance of the second day (the death and burial). Our present knowledge of the cross must not modify the finality of the cross. For the disciples Friday was not the first day but the last day—they did not know another day was coming. In this sense the first day of the Trideum (the Friday) is the last day.
With this in mind, we will first look briefly at the implications of Good Friday in its own light, as those who thought the curtain had come down and that the play had come to a tragic end. We will then look at day two, the Saturday, and learn what it should teach us, again as those who see it as final, and have no idea that a great reversal will take place the next day. And finally, we will look briefly at Easter Sunday itself.
FIRST, THE IMPLICATIONS OF GOOD FRIDAY AS THE LAST, RATHER THAN THE FIRST DAY
For those who did not know that another day was coming, Good Friday was not simply the barbaric torture and death of the one they loved and in whom they had put their trust. Much more was at stake. The message of the kingdom of God that was announced as being “at hand” by Jesus is now seen to have been false, or if not false, at least a sincere mistake.
His claim of unique sonship is invalidated as they see the broken and bleeding body on the cross of Golgotha. And even a question mark now lies over the character of his Father. How could he let this happen? Is he uncaring? Impotent? Or simply not the one who notices a sparrow falling to the ground? Lewis adds…“…we can no longer shut our eyes to the terrible possibility, not that Jesus has failed God, but that in his death God has failed him.” “…the very person who called God ‘Father’…[now dies] abandoned and rejected, [and] forsaken.”
And not only for Jesus, but for all of us “…the godforsakenness of his dying…confirm one of two unthinkable conclusions: either that he had never been the enfleshment of God’s love and power; or, worse still, that this had been God’s last, best effort against the tyrants, and that hatred and violence had proved impregnable against the fragile flower of grace incarnate.”
Good Friday, standing alone, is frightening and should fill us with despair and the abandonment of all hope. And this is the desolation that those who thought the story was over felt on that day. And although we now know that there was another day to come, unless we allow the full horror of that day to grip us, the great reversal that took place on the Sunday cannot be appreciated.
Although we know the end, to appreciate the end we must read it as if we did not: That the kingdom he announced is overthrown; that love is now conquered by hate; that his life and message is now a dream that has evaporated; and that even the Father who he trusted is either not there or he himself is in the dock and on trial because of what he allowed to happen.
Such are the inescapable conclusions of he events of the Friday for those who thought it was the last rather than the first day. And if we are to grasp the depths and heights of the drama of Easter
we need to stand in their shoes and share the perspective of those who left Golgotha with their dreams shattered and their hearts broken. This, and nothing less, is the tragedy of act one.
SECOND, THE IMPORTANCE OF HOLY SATURDAY
Holy Saturday now becomes the key in properly understanding what came before so that we are prepared for what will come after. It is not a fallow field. It is a day full of significance, even though that significance will take us further into the hinterland of grief before we will eventually arrive at the sunrise of Easter morning.
[The value of Holy Saturday is that] “… death is given time and space to be itself, in all its coldness and helplessness.” —“Instead of passing over the grave of one brief Sabbath confident that all will soon be well, we let ourselves be stopped, and come to the conclusion that everything had stopped, save the endlessness of suffering and sin.”
Lewis says…“How is it possible for there to be a day in history which is both the day after the end of life and the day before the end of death…” Yet this is the mystery of Holy Saturday, a day that looks back and preserves the terror of the cross, and by so doing prepares us for the unexpected reversal and victory of the day to come. To neglect the meaning of this day is to distort the meaning of the day that came before it and the day that is to follow.
As I have said, the Saturday is a hiatus that enables us to understand what the cross says on its own before it is given further meaning by the resurrection. But Lewis repeatedly points out how very difficult it is for us who know the end of the story, not to read into the abyss of the Saturday the victory of the Sunday.“… the Christian community has always found it difficult to adopt an Easter Saturday vantage point and consider the death of Christ in its own scandalous light…without or before his resurrection”. “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, savior, or redeemer, He is dead and gone,….”
Again, those of us who know the story must try and stand in the shoes of those who lived through the events of Friday and the silence of Saturday with the conviction that an irreversible tragedy had occurred that had fragmented all their hopes and plunged them into the abyss of despair. Justice was dead, the powerful had triumphed, their hope for the dawning of God’s kingdom shattered, and Jesus, “the one unspoiled specimen of humankind” is now dishonored, dead, buried, and decaying in the tomb.
We can appreciate the Sunday only if we first understand the finality of the Friday and the silence of the Saturday. Unless we absorb the extent of the tragedy we diminish the impact of the victory. And therein, according to Lewis, lies the value of the second day of the Trideum.
THE DESCENT INTO HELL
Before moving onto the third day it is important to mention that when the creed speaks of Jesus descending into hell this has traditionally been connected with the significance of Holy Saturday.
I am aware that the phrase “descended into hell” (echoing Acts 2:31) is not found in the earliest editions of the Apostles Creed, and that it is more correctly translated “descended into Hades.” And while these scriptures give us a minimum of information about the meaning of this phrase, it has always been regarded as an important creedal affirmation. A variety of interpretations exist as to its significance and I do not have the time to even outline them in this short segment (Lewis does so in the book), however the depth of reflection on the meaning of the phrase reveals the importance that Holy Saturday had in the history of Christian thought down through the ages. And although the descent is mysterious and veiled, it should not be ignored.
WE NOW MOVE TO ACT THREE, THE THIRD DAY
Saturday has been a hiatus, a time of emptiness and the death of hope. A day in which the full impact of the finality of death can grip our hearts. And it is only after living through this twilight world that we can, when it happens, appreciate the great reversal that take place in act three: the day of resurrection. For reversal is precisely what the empty tomb announces: the inversion of everything which the death and burial of Christ implied.
The third day is of course crammed with significance so I will only mention three in the context of the trideum and Holy Saturday.
First, it is a validation of the message and the person of Jesus.
Lewis writes of the resurrection that “…this new, astounding fact means that the verdict on…the Son has [now] been rewritten,…” The resurrection now becomes God’s commentary on the true meaning of day one, the crucifixion.
Easter Sunday is presented as the verification of both the message and the person of the carpenter from Nazareth who is now, according to Paul “declared Son of God by resurrection”. God has vindicated his suffering servant and reversed the verdict of Ciaphas, Pilate and Herod. He is now both Lord and Christ.
The net result is that Jesus is confessed as Lord, or Kyrious, the very name that had served in Greek as Yahweh’s own name, and he is now given the name that the Empire reserved for Caesar himself. The reversal of resurrection means that every knee must bow and every tongue confess that the crucified criminal is now the Lord of the world. (Phil. 2:11)
Second, act three, is an exoneration of the Father
The resurrection means that the verdict not only on the Son, but also on the Father has been rewritten. If the cross meant that God himself was exposed to the charge of forsaking the Son and abandoning the world then the resurrection means that “it is God [himself] who is supremely vindicated on Easter morning.” That God could possibly be the kind of Father that Jesus had
announced had been seemingly contradicted by the events of the Golgotha. But now the empty tomb not only vindicated the claims of Jesus concerning his sonship, but also vindicated his claims concerning the nature of God’s fatherhood.
Third, it is the dawn of a new creation
The Word, who was in the beginning with God, and through whom all things were made, is now by resurrection, the Word through whom all things are remade, the prototype of what God is going to accomplish in the whole world. Lewis adds that “…the Easter hope shines not only forwards…but also backwards over the graveyards of history,” turning loss into gain, despair into hope, injustice into victory, and death into life.
In John 20, on the resurrection morning, Mary believed that Jesus was the gardener—and this was not a bad mistake to make. Just as the first Adam was a gardener in Eden, so now Jesus, the last Adam, is now the gardener, the steward, of God’s new creation. He comes to uproot the thorns and the thistles as prophesied in Isaiah 55 and is mandated to bring God’s new order into harmony, beauty, and fruitfulness. John’s desire is to conclude his gospel by depicting Jesus as the new Adam who is even now beginning to steward the new creation. God’s tomorrow has invaded our today through the resurrection of Christ.
Because the resurrection has inaugurated the new age, we are now workers together with God in advancing towards its consummation. Because God’s future has already invaded the present, we now work for social justice, protect the environment, value the creation, discover its secrets, celebrate its wonders, and enjoy its beauty. Lewis writes, “…the Easter community…asks for a renewal already given, prays for a peace already accomplished, struggles for freedom already guaranteed.”
I can’t do any better in concluding than quote from Chesterton in his book, The Everlasting Man. Reflecting on the end of John’s gospel, he says, “on the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool, not of the evening, but the dawn.”
Alan Lewis along with Balthasar and others have done us a great service in bringing to our attention a dimension of the Easter drama that I, for one, had never appreciated before. However, summarizing Lewis’ perspective on the Trideum in just a few minutes does not do him justice. The book is a great read and well worth investing in.