Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday...What's Saturday?

Maundy Thursday. "Maundy" is derived from the first word of John 13:34 in Latin:
"Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem." 
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."  
Maundy Thursday remembers Jesus' "Last Supper" with his disciples before he is arrested and crucified. In John's gospel, the above verse is what Jesus says after the Passover meal and after washing the disciples feet. 

Good Friday remembers the crucifixion itself. Of course, for those involved, there was nothing "good" about it, and it's probably more properly called "Holy Friday." The words "holy" and "good" were much more synonymous in Old English than they are today, and "holy" has a distinct meaning. Qodesh in Hebrew and hagios in Greek, the word means "separate" or "consecrated" and does not express any inherent moral value.

Easter. The celebration of the resurrection, and Jesus appearing first to Mary Magdaline, or the men on the Emmaus Road, at the tomb or somewhere on the road, with or without angelic announcement....depending on which gospel you're reading.  It's the celebration of the hope that death is overcome, sins are washed away, and the gates of heaven are open.  Or for most people, Easter eggs and bunnies. Sometimes both. Where did the word "Easter" come from anyway?  It's most likely from Eostre, the pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess of sunrise and spring, whose month was April and whose name was later used to refer to spring in general. (The contemporary German word for Easter is also thought to be related). As with Christmas, the state church after Constantine co-opted existing pagan holidays and made them Christian.

But what about Saturday? What happens Saturday? In some Eastern Orthodox churches, it's actually a big day commemorating Jesus' descent into hell to release captives. But in the Roman Catholic tradition and all Protestant traditions that I know of, nothing happens. The church is empty and locked.  In Catholic churches, the tables and altars are intentionally stripped bare.

What happens on Saturday? Nothing. My personal calendar is bare. The church calendar is bare. Nobody schedules events on the Saturday before Easter.

What was Saturday like?

For those who knew Jesus, you have to wonder if it was the day of just....flat. Numbness. Denial. You know, those early stages of grief. It was the day they had nothing to do but return to life as they knew it before they began following Jesus around. It must have seemed like they had been dreaming and had now woken up again in their real life. This day, for them, would have been their Sabbath. The day to "go to church." But can you imagine it? If ever they had gone through the motions, it would have been that Saturday. God felt absent. "Normal church" felt unfulfilling; heck, maybe even boring compared to being with Jesus. "It's back to my life of working and just trying to get by," I imagine they thought.

I don't know about you, but I think I somewhat know what that's like. You have some amazing experiences. You're challenged, you grow, you're energized. Life is meaningful. And then...just...flat. Let's call it Flat Saturday.  The equilibrium of your life is restored.  You're back to what you know and recognize, which feels good and depressing all at the same time.

But then.....................Easter.

Just when you're convinced you were dreaming it all or it was only fleeting, God shows up again. And no one could have told you beforehand. You wouldn't have believed it. But now, the mundane and the bad and sinful are about to experience resurrection.

Remember: "Easter," that first resurrection day, was the day after the Sabbath.  So the next time Sunday worship seems mundane and routine, watch out.  God might show up on Monday.


When Doubt is the Pinnacle of Faith

Do you remember all the buzz around the release of Mother Theresa's letters in book form after she died?  (The book, which contained her personal correspondence with church leaders, published against her will, was released in September 2007).

What I remember many in the media picking up on was not her saintly insistence on working with the poor and forgotten, not her deep love for her fellow sisters, but the revelation in some of her letters that she was "losing her faith."  I've read the book myself, and the rumors are not unfounded.  The Catholic Church would never fabricate something like this.  She describes periods of deep darkness, penetrating emptiness, and feeling that God was not there.  She explicitly questions God's existence.  She used words like "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" to describe what she was undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.

Of course, the anti-religion community pounced on this one, no one harder than Christopher Hitchens who used this revelation from Mother Theresa's letters to say, "She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person."  (Of course, he's partially right.  Religion IS man-made, but this says nothing about God, about the divine reality to which religion is an imperfect response).

Mother Theresa worked in the slums of Calcutta.  She insisted on going there.  She became more and more disturbed and restless about the fact that she passed by the poor and suffering every day on her way to her "real assignment" within the comforts of convent life.  With humble assertivness, she wrote to her superiors within the Catholic church, on many occasions, insisting that they let her change her assignment to go work in the slums, with the "poorest of the poor."

But such work doesn't come without a cost.  For Mother Theresa, it was the overwhelming suffering and poverty that she lived with day in and day out that sent her over the edge.  Her letters reveal that she spent decades living with emotional and spiritual pain.  God just seemed so absent in her reality.  Where was God?

Anne Lamott said, "Religion is for those who are afraid of hell.  Spirituality is for those who have been there."

Mother Theresa had deep doubts and struggles.  But what if this made her a person of more faith than most?

In 1975, Linda Skrvana decided to take a 3-week vacation to the Grand Canyon, just herself and her dog.  She told her family she would send the occasional postcard, but not to worry.  She would be back in 3 weeks.  But early on in the trip, she went off the beaten path, and got lost.  For several days she desperately tried to find the trail again, but could not.  She found herself in the extreme bottom of the Grand Canyon, unable to climb or hike out.  She had nowhere near enough food and water with her to survive.  The Discovery Network documentary of her experience dramatically reenacts her gruelling battle for her life.  It must have been "hell."  But the thought struck me:  couldn't we say that, more than any of the millions of tourists that have followed the beaten path and seen the rest from a safe distance, Linda truly experienced the Grand Canyon?  She knows better than anyone how "grand" it is, and how much of a "canyon" it is.

Have you ever felt like you don't have enough faith?  Ask yourself this:  What would "more faith" look like?  What would you do differently?  What would it change?  If you've ever felt abandoned or as if God was not there, you are in good company with the biblical writers.  In fact, it would even put you in company with Jesus Himself ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?").  Some passages in Psalms, Job, Lamentations, etc. contain more scathing descriptions of doubt than many contemporary Christians would be comfortable with.  They don't just wonder and say, "Gee, it feels like God has left me," but they say, "God has left me.  When is He coming back?  How long will He stay angry?" (see, for example, Psalm 44:9-26).

We often talk of doubt as the opposite of faith. They cannot coexist, some say.  But what if doubt like what Mother Theresa experienced is in fact strong evidence of an ongoing quest for the heart of God?  Isn't it only the person of strong faith in a loving God who can question and struggle in the face of human suffering?  New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is very open about the fact that human suffering is what ultimately led to his abandonment of his Christian faith.  But where did we get the idea that the mark of faith is the ability to gloss over tragedy and say, "God has a plan"?  If the Christian faith is about a relationship with God, couldn't such questions be an integral part of the relationship?  We don't look for something that's not important to us.  If we're looking, knocking on the door, or pounding on God's chest, we're still very much in relationship with Him. 

I wonder if it is only the person of deep faith in a loving God who can question God in light of suffering.  My deep belief in a God of love, providence, power, etc. is the very reason and source of doubt in light of things that happen in the world that don't seem to look very good on the resume of the world's Creator and Savior.  I think that Mother Theresa's struggle is not just the expected response to what she experienced, but it is actually a faithful response.  The call to love our neighbor is what drove her there, and quite remarkably, she ended up interpreting her emptiness as following Christ to the cross and experiencing the absense of God with him.

Is it really a sign of strong faith if I can step back and say, "God has a plan; I don't question," or is that actually more a sign of disengagement?  Doubt can be the pinnacle of faith...at least, faith that is defined by a relationship that asks, seeks, and knocks (Jeremiah 29:13; Matthew 7:7-8) and sometimes even wrestles and argues (Genesis 32:24-32).

If I were to get lost in the Grand Canyon, the person I would want with me is Linda Skrvana.  She would not only have the experience of navigating the valley but could offer encouragement out of that experience.  One thing I've found is that the most poweful voices of hope come from those who have been without it.  Have you found this to be the case?

By the way, I need to spoil the ending of Linda's remarkable story.  She was finally found, but not by a rescue helicopter, tourists, or park rangers.  She was found by a Native American tribe who had picked up her trail and found her using traditional methods.

Did you get that?  She wasn't found by anyone at a safe distance.  When she was hopeless and alone in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, she was found by those who live down there and know their way around.

Maybe faith lives there too.


This post is an adaptation of a sermon I gave on February, 27, 2011.