Life & Health Theology

Silence, the Death of God, & Holy Saturday

February 16, 2017

Silence has been a great companion to me recently. I mean both the word “silence” and at the same time the movie/book Silence. For many people, that seems like an odd or dismal thing to say. Silence can be maddening. Everyone starts fidgeting in church or class if there is too much silence. We think silence is the death of a conversation. These days, we have our phones or radios or elevator jingles and background music to make sure we never have to endure silence. But I like silence. I’m saddened that there isn’t more time for silence in our lives, or especially in our church services. In church, silence usually means a quick transition point that went on too long. I may be a horrible human for this, but every once and a while I like to just stop talking during a conversation and see how long the other person will endure the silence before trying to break it by saying something or moving somewhere else. You should try it sometime. It can get pretty awkward, and I love it.

You might just say that I like silence because I’m a natural introvert – and that’s partially true. But I don’t think that’s the only reason that I like silence. I think extroverted people can like silence too. (Can any extroverts verify this for me? Do y’all like silence too?) As comedian Louis CK says in one of his sketches, silence forces us to be human beings – not human doings. It forces us to just be OK doing nothing. It stops us from distracting ourselves from what shows up when there’s no iPhone games to play or social media notifications or anything making noise. Silence forces us to recognize that we can’t control anything that’s going on in the world around us. Silence is a gift. Silence is beautiful. I love silence.

Now, I also love the book (and recent movie) Silence. I think it gets at some of the same things. It forces us to deal with questions that we tend to distract ourselves from. I think I can say without ruining the movie/book for those that have not seen/read it, that Silence is about a man wrestling with the apparent silence and absence of God. It is a story of a man trying to reconcile his faith with the suffering he witnesses and the apparent lack of response to that suffering by his God that he has dedicated his life to serve. It forces people to look hard and long at the cross of Christ, and to wonder why his people must bear the same cross in silence – to “fill up the afflictions of Christ” (Col 1:24). One question I’ve read about from people who have read the book or seen the movie, is why is there not more talk of the resurrection? Isn’t the hope of resurrection the one thing that can help us endure the silence of God in the midst of unimaginable suffering? Does Silence focus too much on suffering and death, and not enough on the other side – the resurrection?

Holy Saturday

I actually appreciated that the resurrection wasn’t mentioned in Silence, because of the ambiguity it leaves at the end of the movie/book as we wrestle with Father Rodrigues (the main character). Because of the ambiguity and silence of the book/film on the resurrection, we have to put ourselves in that spot and wrestle with the pain and suffering and silence – we don’t get an easy answer. We don’t get a quick resolution. I think we as Christians don’t really like tension or ambiguity, so we jump too fast to the ending too often, to the resurrection. We hate the darkness, so we turn on a light immediately. We hate the silence so we grab our phones to distract us instead of just sitting there. In Christian terms, we want to jump straight from Good Friday to Easter Sunday without waiting for 3 days. We never stop and sit in the darkness of Holy Saturday. Makoto Fujimura pointed this out to me in his book, Silence and Beauty: “The book [Silence] is about the movement of our souls into Holy Saturday, waiting for Easter Sunday. Endo, in many respects, is a Holy Saturday author describing the darkness of waiting for Easter light to break into our world” (p. 28). I think we need more authors in Christianity that are willing to sit in the darkness, in the silence of God, without jumping to a resolution too fast.

I find that the personal side of my reaction to Silence amplified my artistic appreciation of the ambiguity. For me personally, 2016 was a year of hell (or “hell of a year” – however you want to say it), where my sister fought with and died from a sudden diagnosis of colon cancer at the same time that I was in and out of the ER/hospital with major surgeries and intensive chemo, even while my brother began the fight against the same genetic disease that I’m fighting and took my sister and dad 15 years before her. 2016 was like Good Friday when the sky became dark, and now 2017 leaves me in the wake of that darkness sitting on Holy Saturday. In both grief groups and at church, lots of people have mentioned the “hope of the resurrection” very quickly – too quickly in my opinion. It just feels hurtful and unhelpful right now, and at times has made me angry.

I feel like the disciples on Saturday, perplexed at what God has allowed to happen to my family when we’ve spent our whole lives serving and following him. I know he’s promised that Sunday is coming, but I can’t see that through the darkness and silence of God right now. I can’t see that through the grief and the tears in my eyes. I can’t honestly understand how the sad is going to come untrue right now. It’s like I’m in the middle of winter when everything is dead and buried in snow, including, it seems, God. You can tell me about the Spring and how new life is going to spring up from the ground, but that seems so far away right now and so hard to imagine. Sometimes, I just want to sit in the darkness and silence of Holy Saturday – and it feels like many people are trying to pull me into Sunday too fast instead of joining me on Saturday and sitting with me. But Endo sat with me in the novel, Silence. We need more people willing to sit in the silence and darkness, like Job’s friends initially did.

The Death of God

We don’t really talk much about Holy Saturday in the church these days. We like Good Friday – “Jesus died for us.” We like Easter Sunday – “Jesus rose again from the dead!” But we don’t like Holy Saturday – “the death of God.”

Or, “God is dead.”

We don’t mind saying that “God died for your sins.” Perhaps even right now you want to correct me and say that, technically, it is “Jesus died for your sins.” We don’t like saying that “God died.” He died for something – that makes us feel better. When Nietzsche says, “God is dead,” we respond with the bumper sticker or shirt that says, “Nietzsche is dead.” We feel the abundant need to let everyone know that God’s Not Dead (or God’s Not Dead 2).

But what about Holy Saturday? Would it not have been accurate on Holy Saturday to say,

“God is dead…And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125)

Growing up I thought Nietzsche was a horrible person, but that quote fits Holy Saturday pretty well as I read it today. It’s pretty observant about the guilt and anguish that must have been felt on the day that God died and stayed in the grave. God is dead, and I have killed him – what am I to do in this dead silence and absence? We get on to the disciples for fleeing – but do we so foolishly think that we’d have responded better to the death of the one we thought was the Messiah – or perhaps to the one we thought was God incarnate? What would you do if you truly thought God had died?

What would you have done or said on Holy Saturday?

Now, I’m not saying that God is still dead. But I wonder if there is benefit in sitting in Holy Saturday longer than we tend to (which, let’s be honest, is never). I’m not even saying that there’s never a time for bringing up the resurrection and Easter Sunday for people sitting in Holy Saturday – but God seems a lot more patient than most of us in the church, more willing to sit in the dark – even more willing to sit in the grave, dead. We live in a world where we don’t ever have to sit in the darkness because of technology. Have you ever felt like God is dead? Have you ever felt like it’s still Holy Saturday and you’re not sure if the light of Easter Sunday will ever shine? Perhaps if we sit long enough in the darkness of Holy Saturday then we will appreciate all the more the light that dawns on Easter Sunday. Perhaps we as the church ought to be a little more comfortable with letting people sit in the darkness of Holy Saturday before we try dragging them into the light of Easter Sunday,

When the Winter is Over

The visual picture I get of Holy Saturday is of a barren winter, like the design above. Everything is dead and buried in snow – there seems to be no life at all anywhere you look. It hurts just to be outside in the biting wind, and you start to wonder if there ever was anything underneath the snow in the first place. The sun is hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds, and sometimes you even forget what the sun looked like. That was part of my experience in college up at Hillsdale in southern Michigan. It is understandably depressing at times.

One of my recent favorite images of God is that he is the gardener. That sounds like a bright and happy image at first, until you think about gardening. It is tough, takes a lot of work, and doesn’t ever go the way you want it to (or so it seems). In gardening, life is messily mixed in with death and dirt. Gardening is violent as the ground is broken and things have to be uprooted and trimmed and cut. And that’s just when things are growing in the spring and summer – but then fall and winter comes and everything dies – or so it seems. All your hard work is buried for months, and you are never sure what will survive the blanket of death that comes with the snow, or if anything will survive.

But then the Spring comes and it all starts to makes sense again. Life starts slowly – ever achingly so slowly – breaking into the world that once was covered in death. One of my favorite lines off of Andrew Peterson’s album The Burning Edge of Dawn (which has been a close companion these past few years) comes at the beginning of the song “Rejoice.” It says, “And when the winter is over, the flowers climb through the snow.” I love that line, and it’s the image that has stuck with me since the beginning of 2017 – my Holy Saturday. It’s the hope that somehow, God the gardener is still alive amidst all this death I see. And eventually, life is going to break through, if I wait long enough.

But to be honest, the rest of the song, “Rejoice” would sound trite and like Christian cliche if it wasn’t for the context of the whole album, and particularly the song right before it. The song right before is called “The Rain Keeps Falling” and is probably my favorite song on the album because I identify with nearly every single line. It is a Holy Saturday song. It’s also a gardening song. It’s about death and waiting, and life buried below the dirt and muck and mire. It’s about the ache that comes with waiting for Spring to come – for “the flowers to climb through the snow.”

“I’m dying to live, but I’m learning to wait…”

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1 Comment

  • Reply Mark Zeck February 16, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    I read “Silence” and haven’t fully come to grips with it yet. The subject of apostasy is front and center and it brings as many questions as answers, to me. It is interesting, however, how many great movements were surrounded by death and persecution- that forced a realistic focus as opposed to one of being entertained. One of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite theologians was by Owens speaking to the complaint of being hard to read:
    READER . . . If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatre, to go out again, — thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!” On a personal level, he lost eleven children and his wife in a span of thirty years. His work during this time remained focused on Christ and brought realism to people like Packer and to a much lesser level, myself.

    Great thoughts and discussions thanks! mz

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