This is the day we often forget. Between the heart-wrenching sorrow of Good Friday and the life-bursting joy of Easter Sunday there is another full day to be lived. What must it have been like on that day for those who had put all their trust and hope in Jesus? Did they gather together? Did their grief lead to an emptiness that isolated them from one another? On this Saturday, in Seattle, 2019, I find these questions and this day more important to consider than in past years. Just a few months ago, the Seattle Times printed a piece by a local family doctor writing about an epidemic the doctor felt was being ignored by the medical profession. Similarly, last week a friend of mine, who is a high school counselor, talked about an epidemic that he feels has reached the level of a full-blown crisis for youth across our nation. Though they were not talking about the exact same thing, the issues overlap significantly. In the doctor’s own words, the epidemic he treats daily is “loneliness.” The crisis my friend deals with daily is depression and anxiety leading to suicide. Each of these issues represents a type of darkness that is blocking out the light for people of all ages across our country and isolating them in their pain. There are millions of people, literally dying to know that they are not alone.
This year, at our little church, since Advent we have been looking at the Gospel according to Luke. As we came to the story of Christ’s crucifixion, one of the most important things that stood out to me was the profound way that God is with us, even in the midst of a darkness that no one else can understand. And this holds true for these days of loneliness and lament that follow. As I write this, I know that many of us are likely in the midst of darkness ourselves. And even if we are not, or not now, others close to us are. I believe that God dearly wants us all to know that we are not alone in our darkness, no matter how deep or isolating.
Luke tells the story like this:
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
There are several different ways to interpret the events recorded in this story. Some people believe the crime is so horrendous that Creation itself is trying to hide the event by blocking out the sun. Most people see foreboding signs of God’s wrathful judgement on human sin. One commentator provides a representative reason when he notes, “In the Old Testament darkness often indicates judgement.” But most commentators have difficulty fitting in an appropriate interpretation of the tearing of the curtain. The curtain described is that which blocked off access to the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies was the physical space on earth where God was believed to dwell. The only human being who could enter beyond the curtain was the High Priest, and that was only one day each year, the Day of Atonement. The curtain represented a barrier between God and creation.
In Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, the curtain is torn in two from top to bottom, the moment Jesus dies. The general interpretation being that Jesus’ death opens the way for all humanity to enter fully into the presence of God, and vice versa. In the way Luke tells it, however, the curtain tears, then Jesus dies. To me the darkness and the tearing of the curtain go together. What comes to mind is the act of grief in the Hebrew, First Testament. In the scriptures we read that often when someone died, those grieving would tear their clothing and throw ashes on their heads. In Luke’s text, I see this same type of grief displayed against the background of Creation itself. I see God’s lament for the death of God’s only son. The darkness falls and God’s heart is torn in sorrow.
What sealed this belief for me, was reading a Hebrew, First Testament text from Amos:
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.”
In the horrific moment of Christ’s crucifixion, all of God’s people should have lamented their sins and their loss; but they didn’t. In their stead, God’s heart is broken. Like the “mourning for an only son”! This darkening of the sky and tearing of the curtain reveal the grief of God displayed for the whole earth to see. This is God grieving the loss of God’s only child!
To me, even the word used to describe the parting of the curtain in the Temple speaks of grief. A few years ago I wrote a poem, that reflects some of what I see here:
A Broken Heart
To say a heart “breaks”
makes it sound as if
a heart cracks or shatters,
splintering into shards
like a porcelain cup
But a heart is not brittle,
needs a softer image.
Tender, like meat, or flesh,
it tears, bruises, is pierced –
bleeds as if, by someone,
In the way Luke tells this part of the story of Jesus, the darkness blocking out the sun and the tearing of the curtain in the Temple speak to us of God’s own lament. They speak to us of the sorrow of God the Father, God the Mother, losing their only child. Luke’s story speaks to us of the sorrow of Jesus, abandoned on the cross, alone in the darkness. And it speaks to us of the sense of abandonment and loneliness of Jesus’ followers.
This is an area of life that the wider Christian Church in the U.S. has tried to suppress far too often – grief, sorrow, lament, loneliness. The lie has been told that we must be happy, smiley and positive if we have faith in God. But here, in this story, we see God themselves lament! Jesus abandoned and alone! And we know that there are other stories as well: Jesus weeping with his friends Mary and Martha at the loss of their brother Lazarus; Jesus alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, late at night, in the dark, before he is arrested, so overcome with sorrow and anxiety that he sweats blood! God knows the darkness of sorrow, anxiety, lament and loneliness that blocks out all sunlight and isolates us from every other human being.
Jesus endured all of this for at least two important reasons. One reason, is that we might never be alone – no matter the depth, nor the reason, for our own despair. The darkness we see here in this story, comes from the very heart of God. I think it is meant to put us in awe of how cosmically deep God’s darkness is, in order that we might know that there is nothing within our own lives that will ever be beyond God’s reach. One of the debilitating aspects of grief is that no other human being can share the exact same experience. But God can, and does. Every Sunday in our congregation we proclaim, in the Apostles Creed, that Jesus descended even into hell for us. God is with us, even in a darkness that no one else can understand.
Another reason Christ experienced these depths was so he could lead us out of the darkness and into the light. We celebrate this truth most profoundly on Easter Sunday. But even now it is vital for us to be reminded that the darkness could not hold Christ forever. We do have hope to cling to, even in the deepest darkness because Christ is there with us. Our inheritance is the Kingdom of Light; this is our hope even when darkness blocks out the sun.
But we do not get to skip over the grief of Good Friday and the loneliness of Silent Saturday to get to the joy of Easter Sunday. Because there is an epidemic of loneliness in our communities, because there is a crisis of depression, anxiety, suicide, it is vital that we know for ourselves, and share with all whom we can, that there is hope that someday the sun will shine again, that there is a place for everyone in the Kingdom of Light. Yet at the same time, because there is an epidemic of loneliness in our communities, because there is a crisis of depression, anxiety, suicide, it is vital that we know for ourselves, and share with all whom we can, that God is with us always, even in the grief of the events and in the loneliness of all the days that follow, in the darkness of Good Friday and the loneliness of Silent Saturday.