There is a popular saying in western Christianity that I must admit I don’t particularly like – ‘It may be Friday but Sunday’s coming’. I’ve always felt Holy Saturday is an entirely under utilised theological resource. It is part of our Western psyche that wants to jump forward to the resurrection, get to the point, resolve the story, tie it up with a nice neat little bow, and run the ‘happily ever after’ closing screen.
The COVID-19 pandemic would not play our Western game of shortcuts and quick fixes.
An often-overlooked component of the incarnation is the three days that Jesus spends in the grave. God doesn’t stop where we live but goes before us into death. Meeting with us in our brokenness, Jesus does not give up when things get uncomfortable; he willingly gives his life. He trusts the Father and moves into the unknown.
Some of our church members, particularly those hesitant to engage anything “digital,” report that there was no “Easter Sunday” in 2020. The church was “closed.” In one sense they are right but really they missed the point of resurrection.
The Coronavirus forced us to stay in the tomb. We have been living in the tomb time for over a year. It’s been a long Holy Saturday. This requires us to have faith and obedience in the face of uncertainty.
Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12 reveal not only the astonishing depths of God’s love but also indicate our place is with Jesus in the tomb. This descent into the tomb with Christ is part of our journey to spiritual maturity. It is a move toward our own resurrection life. This inverts the modern world’s values of honor, prestige, and power.
The tomb forces us into an uncomfortable state of liminality and confusion. Like Cleopas and his companion we get on with life but with a slower step, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place” (Lk 24:21). The tomb represents separation, disorientation, and living in the in-between. As we look to engage in new ways of mission, different ways of being church, innovate, and create new things, we hit the wall of disappointment and failure.
The late theologian and author Alan Lewis wrote,
‘The second day appears to be a no-man’s-land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel, not its number in the series, but its place, bears its significance, as that day between the days which speaks solely neither of the cross nor of the resurrection, but simultaneously remembers the one and awaits the other, and guarantees that neither will be heard, or thought about, or lived, without the other.’ (Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday)
While we often pass right over Jesus’ time in the grave as a non-event, it is of paramount importance. The Scriptures, church tradition, and the creeds affirm a “descent into hell.” We can safely say that Jesus was busy during the darkness of the tomb, yet the implications are perhaps beyond our finite comprehension.
We can learn a lot from what the disciples do during this time. A cursory review of the Scriptures may respond with “not much” or at least “nothing to be proud of.” They had a funeral of sorts (Jn 19: 38-41). They rested (Lk 23:56). They waited (Jn 20:2). They hid out (Jn 20:19). Some doubted (Jn 20:25). Some lamented (Jn 20:11). But they also talked, they processed, they prayed—they formed relationships while they waited, and they wrestled with the implications of what had happened (Lk 24:36). In actuality, this is a vast amount of significant activity. In fact, they were becoming reflective practitioners long before theological colleges came up with the idea!
In the ‘tomb time’ the disciples were asking lots of questions. Was Jesus really the one? What does this mean? Should we go home and go fishing? Can a person cursed and executed on the cross really be the messiah? Have we been duped? Are we going to be executed now too? Also, the timing was essential to their activity. In John’s narrative, we often emphasize the disciples’ cowardice, hiding out with the “doors locked for fear of the Jews” (Jn 20:19). Yet in another sense, they were doing the only thing they could do. Had they rushed out headlong into the streets of Jerusalem, considering the powder keg it was already, they likely would have met a quick fate.
I believe this is what the Holy Spirit is calling the church to as we embrace the new reality of a pandemic with a long tail. The tomb time is a place to wait, reflect, connect in new ways, and learn to ask different questions.
Tomb-time involves consciously pausing to diagnosis our context through the three lenses of hindsight, insight, and foresight. Furthermore, we are in a place of powerlessness. We are waiting for God to do what only God can do.
One of the greatest threats as we begin to emerge from the tomb time is the rush ‘back to normal.’ While the pandemic has been a time of flourishing creativity and innovation for many churches, if our goal is to get back to business as usual, we are squandering the gift.
Normal wasn’t working before the pandemic. In fact, normal was dreadful. The traditional church has been in a death spiral of decline for decades. Outsiders look at the church and they don’t see Jesus. They see infighting, judgment, and hypocrisy. They don’t see the church as a place of healing, but a place of harm. We have failed to connect in a significant way with the last three generations in the UK. We have not ‘made disciples’ we have made ‘church members’ many of whom disengaged when we closed our sanctuary doors for the pandemic.
The pandemic gave us the gift of a reset. We’ve had a year in the tomb to wait, pray, strengthen our relationships, and ask different questions.
Recently, some church leaders have stepped forward to critique digital church. The essence of their lowly view of online church is, “that was a nice temporary solution, but now let’s get back to real church.”
But what about those of us who found digital church to be just as real, or even more real, than a church centered in a building? What about all the disciples we actually made in digital space? What about the ways we learned to inhabit digitality in such a way that it brought healing to the isolated and the suffering? What about all the people who will never set foot in our sanctuaries who found a home in a digital community?
As we move toward resurrection Sunday, may we remember that resurrection is about continuity, not replication. Jesus is raised from the dead in his same body, but it is different. New creation describes a radical change of state. The wound-bearing Jesus is the same, but different. May we come out of the lockdown phase of the pandemic, the same, but different.