In the last book of the Bible, called Revelation, in the fifth chapter, John takes a selfie.
As the title Revelation implies, the book claims to describe what was revealed by/about Jesus to John, “who testifies to everything he saw” (1.2). Accordingly, John uses the phrase “(Then) I saw” (or “I looked”) well over forty times, while inviting his reader to “Behold!” (or “Look!”) around 25 times.
And what John and the reader behold is truly extraordinary.
But twice in Revelation John, as he’s replaying for us the footage of all that he saw, turns the camera (as it were) away from all these truly extraordinary sights to take a brief selfie, in order to capture his own reaction.
Why does he do this? If we can answer this, we understand the significance of Holy Saturday.
In the fourth chapter John is summoned into the celestial dimension and ushered into the presence of the One seated on the Throne, Who was and Who is and Who is to come–the LORD God Almighty, who is issuing decrees with a voice that sounds like “rumblings and peals of thunder,” decrees that are then executed by His self-sustaining blazing seven-fold Spirit, so that before Him the chaotic sea of history (“the turmoil of the nations”) is brought to a crystal calm.
Here John beholds unparalleled and unsettling Sovereignty and Self-sufficiency.
This is the Creator.
True to his apocalyptic style, John then writes:
“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, ‘Whos is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?’ But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.”
In John’s day a scroll in the hand of one in authority would indicate pre-arranged, official plans of some sort. Accordingly, to break the seals and open such a scroll would be done only by one for whom the scroll was intended–namely, one who was qualified to execute the plans written in the scroll, bringing them to fulfillment.
As such, John beholds the fixed purposes of the Creator in his hand, purposes that are in need of fulfillment. But in response to the cosmic query of the “mighty angel,” there is deafening silence: “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” is qualified (“worthy”) to do so.
And it is here, in response to this defining cosmic silence–in response to the crushing probability (inevitability?) that the Creator’s purposes in history will not find their fulfillment–that John decides to take a selfie, writing:
“I began to weep loudly, because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.”
John, this aged and imprisoned apostle, allows himself–and, in so doing, allows his suffering, struggling readers–to feel what he has just seen and heard: a crushing despair, hopeless lament in the face of what looks and sounds and feels like complete and unmistakable divine defeat.
And the shame. The utter humiliation of being duped into believing that Israel’s God actually had everything under control and could somehow overcome and undo all of this. Are we not, of all people, to be most pitied?
It is here that we experience, apocalyptically, Holy Saturday. It is the day after God had been horrifically and humiliatingly betrayed, denied and defeated.
And absolutely nothing has changed. Nothing.
To rush from Good Friday to Easter is my heart’s impulse. It is, I think, my contemporary church’s impulse. I do not want to be confronted with the aching despair that would otherwise be ours and which, needlessly, is the despair felt daily by countless souls around the world, quite probably our next door neighbor.
But to enter into and feel that despair is to be free to be present with it in the lives of others. It is to be able to understand it and love those gripped by it, who will do anything to deny it or dull it or distract themselves from it through all manner of methods–vocational success, a significant other, hidden addiction, the pursuit of wealth or social connections, external “beauty,” athletic or academic accomplishment.
Holy Saturday calls us to drink deeply of an impregnable despair. It calls us to know darkness, and darkness alone, as our closest friend.
As Oliver O’Donovan masterfully declares regarding the despair of Holy Saturday:
“It would have been better that Jesus had never come and that the faith of the prophets had remained an unfulfilled longing: ‘But we had hoped that it was he who would ransom Israel,’ as Cleopas says in St. Luke’s Gospel. And once such a hope was formed, it could never be gone back on . . . and the state of affairs on Easter [i.e., Holy] Saturday . . . was indescribably frightful: the one Righteous Man, the emissary of the divine purpose, had proved insufficient to the monstrous wickedness of sin; God had lost control of the universe he had made; his purposes of salvation were defeated, and humanity could only be certain that there was neither order nor truth nor justice in the universe and that sheer blind, self-destructive chaos ruled . . . .”
As I understand it, the late Scottish theologian Alan Lewis began working on a project, eventually entitled Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, when he was first diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take his life.
Lewis’s pen is marvelous, and his work is moving. Listen to him beautifully describe first Maundy Thursday, then Good Friday, then Easter, and then last (“in between”) Holy Saturday (in italics, which are mine):
“. . . the grieving farewells, the shameful betrayal, guilty denial, and agonizing fear of the night before the end; the long, dark deadly day of pain and forsakenness itself; an ecstatic daybreak of miracle and color, song and newborn life; and in between one eerie, restless day of burial and waiting . . . perhaps for nothing; a day which forces us to speak of hell and to conceive how it might be that God’s own Son, and therefore God’s own self, lay dead and cold within a sepulcher.”
Just as we join Jesus’ disciples on Maundy Thursday for the Last Supper and then journey to Gethsemane, to witness betrayal and abandonment, only to trail behind the mob at a safe distance with Peter and enter anonymously into courtyard of the high priest; and as we join the crowds on Good Friday before Pilate, shouting, “Crucify him!” and then find ourselves among the religious elite , shaking our heads at him and saying, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself,” so let us on Holy Saturday join the utterly defeated and despairing disciples, hidden away in a locked room, certain of only one thing:
that it was all over.