Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holy Saturday

From Msgr Ronald Knox's The Creed in Slow Motion, published in 1949. [Note: "The sermons of which this book is composed were delivered to the girls at the Assumption Convent (now at Exton, Rutland) when they were evacuated to Aldenham Park, Bridgnorth, during the late war."]

Chapter XII: Dead and buried

I don't know whether you learn any French history here. I can't remember ever being taught any French history in my life. But if you do learn any, you have probably by now got down as far as Clovis, who was king of the Franks in about a.d. 500. He was a pagan to start with, but was converted by marrying a Christian wife, St. Clotilde. And when he was being instructed before his baptism (by St. Remigius, I suppose) and had got down as far as the story of the Crucifixion, Clovis is said to have remarked, " If I had been there with my Franks, we wouldn't have stood for that sort of thing ". This is always quoted as the comment of a very stupid man, who quite failed to see the point. Well, I suppose he did, but in some ways I don't think it's such a bad comment. He was only an old tough, but he had the sense to see that this article in the Christian creed is a very extraordinary one—that the Crucifixion should ever have been allowed to happen.

I don't mean it was an extraordinary thing that men should have allowed it to happen. On the contrary, I'm afraid it was just like us all over; and if Clovis had really been there with his Franks, Pilate would probably have managed to explain to him that this was, after all, the best way out of a difficult situation. No, but it was extraordinary that the Son of God should be allowed to die. Our Lord, as we know, was free from original sin, and on that ground alone you might have thought he ought to be spared the sentence of death, which was only pronounced against our race because of Adam's fault. But there, of course, our Lady was in the same position; and she, like him, underwent the experience of death before she went home. But in our Lord's case there is a quite extraordinary paradox, which may be expressed quite simply in two words; God died. Oh, it's quite true that he didn't die as God; the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity could not, for a solitary moment of time, cease to exist. But the Person who breathed out his Spirit on the Cross was God; and yet he died.

We think of the Resurrection as an extraordinary thing; but that is really the wrong way to look at it. The Resurrection was, you may say, an inevitable event, an event which anybody ought to have foreseen. The pains of death, as St. Peter says, could not hold our Lord; of course they couldn't. No, the extraordinary thing was that the pains of death should ever, even for a moment, have the power to assail him. And yet they did. I've tried to explain to you, in one of my earlier sermons, why it was fitting that this should happen, so far as our limited intelligences can attempt to account for such a mystery. But, however much you or I may understand it or fail to understand it, there is the fact; God died. And it is a mystery which will, perhaps, make it easier for us to understand other mysteries; other mysteries which will cross the path of each of us, as life goes on. I mean, when someone for whom we care deeply is taken from us by death and we find ourselves murmuring at the back of our minds the old complaint: " Why was this allowed to happen? " All we know is that God hung on the Cross, with his Blessed Mother beside him praying a Mother's prayers; and he was allowed to die.

Our Lord wasn't like other men. God didn't treat him as he treats you and me, sending what he sees best to us whether we like it or not, and often in spite of our frantic struggles to avoid it. No, nothing was done without the co-operation of our Lord's human will. And so it was at his death; his death was an action, not a pressure from outside which he couldn't avoid. Sometimes the deaths of holy people have the air of being deliberately willed. I was told a story of Father Bede Jarrett, the great Dominican provincial who died not very long ago, which illustrates that. I have been told that when he fell into his last illness, Father Bernard Delany went to see him, and said, " Well, Father, of course you know that you've got to get well; we can't possibly spare you ". And about a fortnight later, when Father Bernard went to see him again, Father Bede said, " Oh, Father, I'm so dreadfully tired; do you think you could let me want to die after all, or must I go on under obedience wanting to live? " And he naturally said, " Oh, of course I never meant to put you under obedience ." And Father Bede said, " Thank you so much", and died about half an hour afterwards.

Well, as I say, nothing ever happened to our Lord which he didn't will with his human will, and therefore you may think of his death as an action of his; he didn't just get killed, or let himself die, he chose death. You get hints of that all through the story of the Crucifixion; that he should have died after three hours, I mean, whereas a man may hang alive on a cross for three days; that he should have cried aloud, saying quite intelligible words, a moment before, as if there was no mortal weakness in him; and then there's that phrase St. John uses, " Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst"—he has the whole situation in his hands, up to the last moment. I don't mean that if our Lord's body had been submitted to a post mortem examination it would have been impossible to find any cause of death; I don't see why his death should have been supernatural in that sense. But his will co-operated in his own death; he was not robbed of his life, he deliberately handed it over.

It's curious, isn't it, how when you come to look into them all the clauses of the Credo which seemed the obvious and easy ones are really the obscure and difficult ones ? To say that our Lord died seems quite an ordinary statement, but we have seen that it's a very extraordinary statement indeed. And then when we come on to this next clause, we're in just the same position. He died, and was buried; of course, you say, if he died, naturally the next thing was to bury him. Yes, but what I'm trying to show you is that, if it was an astonishing thing that our Lord should die, equally it was an astonishing thing that he should stay dead. The separation of body from soul, even in us ordinary human creatures, is not a natural state; it is an unnatural state which only takes effect because we are sinful creatures, fallen creatures, born under a curse. It's not natural for a soul to be separated from its body any more than it is natural for a fish to live out of water. And in our Lord's case there was no question of punishment for sin, no question of his having inherited the taint of fallen nature. Therefore you would have expected that as soon as he died he would come to life again. Every second during which he stayed dead, on Good Friday and Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday morning, was a kind of miracle; a much more remarkable miracle really than his Resurrection. Why did that happen?
You see, there's a very important principle in theology which lays it down that miracula non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. That is Latin, but it is not very difficult Latin to translate; I should think some of you could almost do it in your heads. Miracula, miracles, non sunt, are not, multiplicanda, meet to be multiplied, praeter, beyond, necessitatem, what is necessary. God can do any amount of miracles, but we are not to assume that he throws miracles about the place recklessly all the time. For instance, if you look in your desk to find a particular book and can't see it there, and the mistress says, " Go back and look again ", and you say a prayer to St. Anthony and find the book as soon as you open the desk, it's possible that there has been a miracle. It's possible that you left the book among the straw you put in your rabbit-hutch; there would be nothing unusual about that. And it's possible that St. Anthony found it there and scooped it up and put it back in your desk in answer to your prayer; St. Anthony is a very great saint, and it is not impossible that his intercession should have done that for you. But, on the principle which we have just been translating from the Latin, it's safer to assume that probably when you looked in your desk before you didn't look very carefully. And that makes us wonder why our Lord didn't come to life again almost immediately after he died, instead of lying on there in his tomb all Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, by a long series, as it were, of miracles. Why was it our Lord wanted, not merely to die, but to be buried in the earth?

Well, I think there are a whole lot of answers to that question; and we shall come across most of them in their due place, if we go on pegging away at the Credo. For instance, I think he wanted to fortify our imaginations against the uncomfortable feeling we all have when we go to a funeral, and the coffin is smothered in earth. We know really that all that makes no difference, because the dead person will rise again; but there is something which depresses our imagination about the thought of a grave dug in the ground. To lighten that depression of ours, our Lord was content to be buried in a tomb, so that we should be able to think of the earth to which, sooner or later, we must return, as something which has been hallowed and quickened by his presence. When you were very small, and had to take medicine, did your mother ever take a sip of the medicine first, just so as to assure you that everything was all right? That is what Jesus Christ did, when he was buried for us. But we shall be talking about that, I suppose, when we get on to the Resurrection of the Flesh.

And then, I think he wanted his burial to be the mystical symbol of our baptism. St. Paul doesn't think of baptism so much as washing us clean from our sins; he likes to think of it rather as burying us away from our sins; the waters of baptism roll over us and engulf us, and we come to life again, as it were, new creatures, after that drowning. So, right back to St. Paul's time, Christian thought has looked upon our Lord's passage through the dark gates of the tomb as the type of our passage through the waters of baptism, and not merely the type of it, but the power which gives it its efficacy.

And then you've got to remember that, while his body lay in the tomb, our Lord's soul was not being idle. But we shall be talking about that, I hope, on the last Sunday of this term, so there's no need to deal with it now.

Meanwhile, there's a much more human reason our Lord had for putting a fairly long interval—not too long, but a fairly long interval—between his death and his rising again. He wanted, surely, to test the faith of his followers. I think that is a point we are apt to forget when we read the story of the Resurrection. I mean, when you read the story of the Resurrection don't you find yourself wondering how it was that it came as such a surprise to everybody? Why weren't they expecting it? He'd told them, again and again. Well, you know, it's only a guess, but I think it was partly the strain of waiting. Oh, it's quite true, our Lord hadn't merely told them he was going to rise from the dead; he had told them he was going to rise from the dead the third day. But hope deferred does make the heart sick; and you will find that the two disciples whom our Lord met on the road to Emmaus, that first Easter Day, talk as if they had grown tired of waiting. " And besides all this, it is now the third day since all this happened "—as if you couldn't be expected to wait a matter of forty-eight hours for God to bring his purpose to fulfilment. Our Lord wanted them, I think, to learn to wait; waiting is good for all of us.

And perhaps the simplest way of all to answer the question, " Why did our Lord want to be buried in the earth?" is this. He wanted the whole of his merciful design for our redemption to unroll itself gradually before our eyes, like a kind of slow-motion picture; never hurrying, never giving us the opportunity of saying, " Stop a minute, I haven't quite taken that in yet". He wouldn't just come to earth, he would spend thirty-three years on earth. He wouldn't just appear suddenly and scatter miracles over the country-side in the course of an afternoon; he would spend three years going about and doing good. He wouldn't just die for us; he would hang there, three whole hours, on the Cross, so that we could watch him and take it all in. And he wouldn't just die-and-rise-again; he would spend part of three days in the tomb, with his enemies vindictively keeping watch over him, with his friends pathetically mourning for him, so that when the Resurrection did come it should come as a deliberate gesture. " I have power," he said, " to lay down my life, and power to take it up again." See how deliberately he lays aside that garment of life, master of the situation, even when his hands and feet are nailed to a cross! See how deliberately he takes that garment of life up again, master of the situation still, even when he lies in a tomb! Nothing impresses us so much, when we read the account of God's dealings with his creation, either in science or in history, as the majestic slowness of his movements. And God made Man did not lose the characteristics of Godhead; he went to work very slowly, for all the world to see that he was God.