A few years ago I wrote a piece on Holy Saturday (you can read it here, though it’s a bad piece of writing, as it all is). I had just started the process of coming out to a small handful of my closest friends, something I had known was coming but had dreaded and resisted for a long time. The post was a reflection on a debate I had with a colleague and friend as we walked the streets of Philadelphia late one night. The argument carried us one-and-a-half miles along the city streets and then some, as we had taken a wrong turn and had to retrace our steps. I still laugh about it as I remember finally getting to the hotel just before midnight. We continued our verbal sparring while checking in to our rooms. Interrupted by the receptionist’s questions, we would stop long enough to answer before resuming our fight. The look on her face told us that she was annoyed with us or bewildered or both.
On the surface we were arguing about the Christian life and what he perceived to be my despair and near fatalism. He would even call me a “Good Friday Christian” at one point to suggest that I did not properly account for the resurrection. I was challenging what I thought to be his triumphalism: his over-realized eschatology and simplification of the Christian life—the ignoring of the witness of lament that accounts for one-third of the psalms, the ignoring of the witness of Job and Jacob and Paul and of a God who wounds, who gives and takes away. Here is how I ended that piece two years ago:
My friend called me a Good Friday Christian with an under-realized eschatology—one given to fatalism, to despair. And I thought he possessed an over-realized eschatology that stressed the reality of Easter as if we were already living in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21), no longer struggling against the powers of darkness and spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12), walking around with hip sockets out of joint and thorns in our flesh.
But perhaps both I and my friend were wrong. Perhaps there are no Good Friday Christians or Easter Christians, but only Holy Saturday Christians working out their salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Perhaps there are only Holy Saturday Christians whose wounds bear the fruit of patience, of throwing oneself time and again unto God, for “to whom shall we go?” (John 6:68). Perhaps there are only Holy Saturday Christians whose works righteousness is deprived of them as they are faced with the mysterious resistance of evil in the time between time. Perhaps there are only Holy Saturday Christians who are, to quote Wesley Hill, “strung like a tension wire” between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday Christians whose presumption and desire for glory is swallowed up in the wounds of Christ and the silence of God. Holy Saturday Christians whose tendency toward despair is given over to a hope that drives them toward promise of Easter. Perhaps there are no Good Friday Christians or Easter Christians but only Holy Saturday Christians wrestling with God in the silence and the darkness, filled with fear and hope, groaning and longing for the risen Christ.
I still stand by that. Holy Saturday remains for me the most holy of days, the day of the Christian year that resonates with me with the most and carries the most meaning for me.
But if I am honest, I was angry then (and probably still am). I was arguing with my friend, as we most always do, because I was hurting. I was arguing from my own experience of being gay, of wrestling with the teaching of the Church, with the witness of Scripture and the call to lay down my life in celibacy in order to get it back again. I was angry with God, and I was angry with my friend because he did not understand just how wounded I was, how deep the hurt was, how much pain I carried with me. I am still unsettled by how much I loathed him during that argument, how much I loathed that he couldn’t see or understand. But it wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t have known.
I think about it often, that maybe he was right. Maybe I could benefit from attending more diligently to the victory of Christ, to Easter. Maybe, after all, my problem was not so much with him but with the resurrection, with the risen Lord. The resurrection puts a question to my own experience. It confronts and challenges my deepest darknesses and my temptation to despair. I know my sadnesses, my longings, my unanswered prayers. I know them more than I want to know them. These darknesses and sadnesses are like family to me. They live with me and I cannot escape them. I know the longing yet unfulfilled to love and to be loved, to give myself to another and to have another give himself to me. I know the sadness of so many desires that have died, or that won’t die but need to die. I know the unanswered prayer for a tender heart that comes from the school of love—of being loved and of giving of oneself in love. I know the pain of a heart made to love, desiring to love, but instead made bitter, shrinking and shriveling and hardening into stone.
I could use a little more resurrection in my life. And it is there, if only I were honest enough to name it. I am loved by dear friends who have given themselves to me in ways that I do not deserve. Their love speaks against the lies I so desperately want to believe about myself: that I am unlovable and unwanted and alone. I am loved—however imperfectly we love each other—by my family, a bond that I don’t quite fully understand and yet it stands there as a witness against my fear that I will be abandoned and rejected. I have known the goodness of the Lord in so many ways as a pastor as I continue to experience more deeply the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit—that united to Christ, the more we pour ourselves out in sacrificial love and experience death by a thousand cuts in a thousands different ways, we live.
And yet, as angry and hurting as I was then, I still contend that Holy Saturday—its eerie and haunting silence, its unsettling stillness, that feeling of I-don’t-know-what-to-do-but-shouldn’t-I-do-something?—remains for me the truest depiction of the Christian life and of my life with God in particular. For I am a bit more settled now than I was then, a bit more at peace with myself and with my God. Celibacy no longer is the gaping chasm, the black hole into which all my dreams have gone to die. It still feels like that times. But it now also holds signs of promise. And that is what Holy Saturday is, too. It is the silence and stillness not only of absence, but fulfillment. It is the silence and stillness not only of emptiness, but completion.
The calling of celibacy is a calling to silence—there will be no words shared on that first date or wielded as a weapon during the fight in the kitchen that changed everything. It is the forbidding of words to be spoken before, during, or after making love, for there will be no love-making. It is a calling to stillness, unsettling us and those around us. Like the farmer who lets the field lay fallow and refrains from sowing seed, celibacy brings to bear up on the life of the Church the witness of the rest of the seventh day, of the seventh year, of the seven Sabbaths of years. It speaks prophetically to the Church Militant of the Church Suffering and Expectant.
Yes, sometimes I rail against this silence and stillness. I rail against the Holy Saturday I’ve been called to live. I’d rather fight or die than rest my love in the love of God. I would rather be speaking and doing and coming and going, busy with something, with anything. I would prefer to have my harrowing-of-hell Rambo-like Jesus hard at work, too, rather than the Lord of the Sabbath, the Jubilee-in-Person who, put to death on the sixth day of the week, who rests now on the sabbath of all Sabbaths, inaugurating the Great and Final Sabbath.
But Holy Saturday reminds us that the silence of God is not only a silence of absence but of consummation. It is the resounding and swarming chatter of creation brought to rest, the cessation of dialogue that gives way to union like the silence of two lovers after all has been said and done. And I think that is true of celibacy, too. It is not just absence and longing, but fulfillment. It is cessation in fulfillment. Or, at least, that is what it can be. But I’m not that good at it and have a lot yet to learn.
Holy Saturday reminds us, as celibacy does in its own way, that it is finished. All has been said and done and now we rest in the bosom of our Lord. This is our witness to the Church and to the world. The field lies fallow, our weapons put away, the marriage bed empty, and the speech of lovers silenced. For the consummation of all things is at hand.
I am indebted to my friend, Steven Rodriguez, for this insight into silence as fulfillment and cessation. He is also the guy I stole the Jesus-as-Rambo imagery from. You can read his writing on Holy Saturday here: https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2017/04/15/the-silence-of-consummation/. And really, you should read all that he writes. He is a great writer, a gifted thinker, a faithful pastor, and an even better friend.
*Pictured above is Jeanne-Jaques Henner’s painting, Jesus at the Tomb (1874), an image of the Savior’s lifeless body, washed and still.
2 Replies to “Holy Saturday, Celibacy, and Sabbath Rest”
Kevin: thank you.
Holy Saturday is a day I’ve reflected on very deeply, having officiated at numerous funerals/committal services on that day. This is a different angle on Holy Saturday, and a thoughtful and insightful perspective. Thank you.
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Thank you, Cindi!