“God is dead.”
Three words – nine letters – out of 174 pages in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science may be the best-known declaration in all of philosophy. Nietzsche’s statement was a philosophical declaration, not a historical one. In his esteemed estimation, Enlightenment rationality had put an end to man’s need for God.
Eighteen centuries before the German philosopher’s frank pronouncement, on a Saturday in Jerusalem, the death of God was not a philosophical proposition but a stark reality. The man who declared the Kingdom of God present at hand had fallen victim to the Kingdom of Caesar. The teacher who called his followers to non-resistance, non-retaliation, and the extra-mile kept his own advice and became a victim of Roman brutality. The man who had healed fevers and lepers by the power of God lay dead in a rock tomb – the very definition of unhealed.
For three years, Jesus’s 12 disciples and a rag-tag band of devoted hangers-on had come to believe the impossible: that God had finally come to save his people, restore sovereignty to Israel, and take his rightful place on the throne of David. Jesus inspired impossible hope and impossible belief in his followers.
The crushing grip of impossibility and improbability, however, returned on Friday as the man in whom they hoped expired. On Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, the day of rest was swallowed up in the stench of death and the inevitability of bodily decay infected the hope that God had come back to set things right. On that Saturday, the silent absence of God was deafening.
The silence of God always seems to follow the tragedy of Good Friday. When life is most painful, and our shouts for answers most fervent, the silence of God seems most cruel.
The seemingly inescapable reality that “God is dead” colors the landscape between Good Friday and Easter. The weight of that conviction spreads out from Saturday into every future reality and confirms that nagging sense that whatever power we may have in this life will ultimately answer to a far greater power that is neither good nor benevolent, but rather violent and merciless. If God is dead, then death is ultimate and inevitable, and we must all sooner or later bow to it.
The Saturday of Holy Week is for all of those who can no longer pretend they are winning. It is for those whose prayers for healing and deliverance went unanswered. Saturday is for the mother grieving the prodigal inertia of a beloved child determined to choose destruction. It is for the addict and the broken adulterer whose desperate penitence collides with cold rejection and hot fury in the sanctuaries where “Just As I Am” lingers.
We cannot deny the pain of Saturday. We cannot escape the weight of the stone rolled in front of the tomb where Incarnate Deity isn’t just sleeping.
But neither can we ignore the scandalous story of the gospels which tell us that the pain of Saturday is best understood as the context for Sunday. Saturday is the glimmer of hope that although God may be silent for now, He is certainly not absent. Saturday provides us a way to understand that escaping pain isn’t the greatest hope in this life. Our greatest hope in this life is that the pain of death is nothing compared to the glory of resurrection. By embracing the severity of Saturday’s grief, we finally begin to understand Sunday’s rejoicing. The weight of sin is death – rejection by loved ones, the scars of injustice, the loneliness of existence without purpose – but the hope of God is resurrection, the life that springs up in places where death has reigned before but never can again. Resurrection brings the promise that Sunday is the greater reality. Resurrection doesn’t deny that Saturday is real, it establishes as fact that it is fleeting.
The cross which stands victorious on Saturday is the voice of violence and retributive justice. It is ugly. It is the worst symbol of the worst humanity can devise. But Saturday gives way to Sunday, and because of resurrection we no longer cower in the shadow of the cross: we wear it around our necks, we place it at the front of our churches, we celebrate it as the center of our theology. Resurrection is nothing less than the absolute power to turn ashes to beauty, and death to life.
On Saturday, we consider the signs of fallenness all around us so that we can hope for the promise of resurrection always before us. Saturday is the privilege of the Church to sympathize and empathize with humanity so that we can truthfully point beyond the cross to the empty tomb, where hope is, where love is, where resurrection is, and where we can be now and forever.
For those currently laboring under the tragic weight of Saturday and the silence of God, may your journey soon lead you into the life and hope of resurrection. Amen.
*Artwork is Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Sandro Botticelli