What was Jesus doing when he was dead?
In the First Letter of Peter (3:9, 4:6) there are references to Christ preaching to the dead. This is sometimes linked with the confession in the Creeds that he “descended to the dead” (or to hell). Some traditional interpretations suggest that this retrospective proclamation was his work on Holy Saturday. Hence Jesus was not so much dead as busy elsewhere, triumphantly striding across a different, infernal, landscape of ministry, rather than genuinely silent or absent.
While 1 Peter has something important to say about the universal scope of Jesus’ saving work – it is for all times and places, not just for those who met him or have lived since – we would be mistaken to use this story as a way to interpret the silence of Jesus’ grave.
The liturgical year integral to the Anglican way of following Jesus involves both suffering and joy, in the characteristic ways a path is laid for prayer and praise through the triduum (three days) that culminates with Easter. Yet while there are ritual signposts on the Thursday evening, Good Friday, and on the dawn of Sunday, the Saturday itself involves an awkward silence.
While his death on the Cross may seem to be the sufficient demonstration of the reality of Jesus’ solidarity with humankind in death, Holy Saturday is the confirmation of what the Cross really means. If the divine Jesus merely departed for a day, abandoning his human body like a shell, faith and hope in the Cross would be compromised. Or if the Cross led immediately to Easter, a transition point without the need for waiting or watching, we would likewise be avoiding a major part of what this central mystery of Christian faith means.
Jesus suffered and died in reality, not merely appearance. He did not merely take time out from bodily existence, but entered into the whole of our condition, accepting death and depending on the power of God to raise the dead. When we face our own mortality, the Gospel does not offer the false hope that we avoid death or just drift on incorporeally – despite the prevalence of such beliefs inside and outside the Church. The Gospel is that the God who raised Jesus from death can also raise us from death.
This is good news for the world we really inhabit, a Holy Saturday world. Although we affirm what both the Friday and the Sunday tell us, and indeed receive it as something already true for us in a sense, life has a more obvious unfulfilled or ambiguous character.
Although we view it differently as a result of that Friday and Sunday, the Holy Saturday world goes on as though little has changed for most times, most people and most places. We still experience the ambiguity of a life filled with what often seems like an incoherent mixture of joy and suffering, of the profound and the meaningless. Although we and our contemporaries try to hold death at bay with our false attempts at obtaining security or avoiding reality, from time to time something happens that reveals how our own lives are vulnerable.
Even some religious figures offer the false “hope” that tragedy reflects judgement, and good fortune blessing. The Cross of Jesus makes such talk not merely insensitive but blasphemous; but experience of the Holy Saturday world suggests it is simply demonstrably wrong. Faith is no more proof against tragedy than any other false hope; rather it is the willingness to believe that we wait, as Jesus waited, for God.
This world needs hope to interpret it, to see the possibility of God’s reality as the key to discerning meaning. Ultimately every joy will be revealed as blessing and every tragedy have its truth revealed, and every tear wiped away. Today, however, is not that time. Today is Saturday, and we must wait.