This weekend, the churches across this country will fill up with people who identify themselves as Christians to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Let me see if I have this right: This was a man who counseled us to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemies.”
And the United States of America is a country with the highest prison population in the world and a record number of inmates on death row awaiting execution;
A country that assassinates people at will, from drones flying at a high altitude, by push-button technology, without any legal process at all;
A country that launched an illegal war called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” that killed tens of thousands and has turned a million people into refugees;
A country that thinks owning a gun is a sign of freedom and independence and gun control infringes on “our rights.”
This weekend, the priests and preachers will proclaim the “Paschal mystery of salvation” in front of packed congregations. We Christians will join with Jesus as he celebrates his last supper with his disciples, washes their feet in a humble gesture of servanthood, then agonizes alone all night as he faces a rigged trial and unjust execution. We will kiss the Cross, the instrument of his torture and execution, and dedicate ourselves to “taking up our cross daily” and then give each other hugs over his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
You might disagree with me, but in my opinion, if we Christians left our churches on Sunday and followed Christ in action on Monday, the killing would stop that very day. In other words, it is a mockery of life, death and resurrection of Jesus to call this a Christian country.
The fact is that we Christians are only fooling ourselves. Jesus knew this would happen. He predicted that many Christians would be hypocrites, even the most fervent who preach and claim to heal and do what they think are “mighty works” in his name. To them, he would say: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:23)
What explains this? How can we get the Christian way of life back on track? What must we do to stop these cheap and easy Hallmark Card versions of Easter?
The answer, in my opinion, is that we must embrace the experience of Holy Saturday.
This is the time that begins at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of Good Friday. The agony of the crucifixion is ending, sunlight fails, darkness descends, an earthquake splits rocks and “the veil of the temple is torn in two.” Jesus cries out in a loud voice: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And he breathes his last breath. His head falls forward. He is dead.
There is silence. Perhaps a gust of wind. A moment when time stands still. Those near the cross look once more. Yes, he is really dead. All their expectations collapse. There will be no overthrow of the Romans, no restoration of the kingdom of Israel, no magical solution to the unendurable in life.
Instead, we must face the tomb, the winter of all hopes and dreams, the disintegration of all understanding. Comprehensibility itself becomes incomprehensible. The rational structures in the mind, the categories by which we interpret the ocean of sensations deluging us, disappear. We are thrust into utter desolation and darkness, and despair over the triumph of the human creature at his and her worst. Civilizations crash into heaps of rubble. Rome is burned. Baghdad is sacked by the Mongols. Constantinople is burned by Crusaders. Ukrainian peasants burn Jewish villages. The screams and cries of the Holocaust in Germany and Poland echo to this very moment. The invisible drone leaves no sound for those who are incinerated beyond recognition.
Do we Christians feel this Holy Saturday in our bones? Are we so accustomed to being the people pulling the trigger of the rifle, or pushing the button to release the bomb that we no longer feel the horror we inflict? Do we read about this tomb time in the newspapers and believe it only happens to other people, in faraway countries, and certainly it can never happen to us?
Perhaps you think I exaggerate when I say that we live suspended over this abyss of horror every day of our lives, an abyss that can crack open at any second during the most mundane moments of our lives.
Katleen Ping fell into the abyss last Monday at 10:30 a.m. Was she talking on the telephone, as she worked at the front desk, perhaps tossing a post-it note into the trash by her desk, wondering what the noise was outside her door? Did she experience a moment of peace when she faced her Good Friday? What will Easter mean to her four-year-old son?
Or Grace Kim, a 23-year-old nursing student. Perhaps she was half-listening to her teacher in class, chipping at a fingernail, wondering about the weekend. Did she hear the disturbance in the hallway? And now, can her family get beyond their Holy Saturday and ever find an Easter again?
These are two of the seven people who were murdered this Tuesday at Oikos University in Oakland, the sister campus of a school in Mountain View where I teach English as a second language. Many people at my school knew Katleen and Grace. Two of my former Mountain View students attend Oikos. (One escaped, the other mercifully absent on Monday.)
Suddenly, the tiniest, most anonymous school in the Bay Area was emblazoned across the front pages of newspapers around the world. As you probably know, a former student entered the classroom, ordered his classmates to line up and executed seven and wounded three with a semi-automatic handgun.
On Tuesday, the next morning, my students and I passed around the front pages of the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. Students read them over, gazed away, shook their heads and looked up at me, the teacher.
Disbelief and silence.
Then one student politely asked: Are guns legal in this country? “We can’t buy guns.” Several nod their heads. They are Korean nationals and cannot work – or buy guns – in this country. How could this one student have bought this gun? Why is there so much violence in the U.S.? Was he on drugs? Was he mentally ill? Why wasn’t there some more security at the school?
Immediately, our minds sought explanations. We were avoiding feeling Holy Saturday. We were searching for something that would lift us out of the abyss of this world — ha’olam hazeh — and reweave the veil of normalcy that had been torn in two. We needed to restore the placid, predictable, and understandable surface of life. Holy Saturday is too terrifying to contemplate; it’s a moment when rationality itself shatters like glass at a sub-arctic temperature.
Yet the veil cannot be rewoven and the glass must remain shattered. Such shootings are not unusual at all. There have been many others in California. There have been many throughout the world. There have been massacres, large and small, and then, catastrophic massacres of entire civilizations.
The question is not, “How do we make sense of this?” No, this is beyond all sense. The question is: “What is our relationship to this aspect of reality?” What is my personal relationship with the fact that I can step outside, pause in midsentence and be shot, kidnapped, or blown up by an assailant, seen or unseen, crazed or calculating, or in its modern version, assassinated as revenge for something some of my race or nationality or religion did.
Knowing all this was coming, Jesus did not flinch or turn away. He did not produce platitudes about how it would all work in out in the end or spin out empty philosophical or theological slogans.
No, in Gethsemane, Jesus stared into the approaching horror of Holy Saturday and most courageously of all, he felt it. He didn’t lie to himself; in his innermost parts, he did not want to die, even if it would “save the world from its sins.” And he begged God to let him off the hook, to “take this cup from me.” He sweated blood. He was entirely alone, facing the horror, just as Katleen Ping and Grace Kim did, and the millions of innocents like them who have died and will continue to die.
Unless we are willing to face the horror of the incomprehensible in the human experience, we have no access to the subsequent miracle. If our minds seal over and we reweave the veil, if we push back from the abyss and impose on reality our order, our own understanding, we become safe from the horror of Holy Saturday. But we’ve also insulated ourselves from the real joy of Easter, the reality of new life beyond all imagination, life far greater than these moments of death. Our minds may have rescued us from horror, but they’ve also forestalled the possibility of a true resurrection.
This is why I don’t want Easter to come too soon. I don’t want cheap grace, and I don’t want easy joy. My prayer for this Easter weekend is that the reality of the resurrection will save us from the ideas that we Christians have imposed on this ultimate mystery, this revelation of the ultimate structure of reality that goes far beyond any conceptions we create with our minds, both in the depth of its horror and the ecstasy of its joy.