The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.”
Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
Matthew 27:62-66 (NRSV)
I cannot imagine what today must have been like for the disciples of Jesus come Saturday after the crucifixion. Watching the humiliation and injustice of Jesus’ trial along with his excruciating death on the cross was enough to cause many of them to flee and try to return to their normal lives. I am sure there were some who held out hope that SOMETHING would happen. Something had to happen, right? This was Jesus, the wonder working, sickness healing rabbi. Jesus had only days ago brought Lazarus back from the dead, surely he could do that for himself?
But, Saturday came and nothing happened.
The Jewish leaders had sealed the tomb, and placed guards to make sure the disciples could not tamper with the body. This must have been disheartening as well. Death for Jewish people was a long communal process. Family would sit with the body in the tomb and friends would come and mourn silently with them for weeks. With the tomb sealed and guards placed, Jesus family and friends could not even mourn his death properly. Death had not separated their beloved Jesus from them, but now the Jewish guards and a large stone made him completely inaccessible.
The guards standing in front of the tomb also must have represented the victory of the Jewish leaders over Jesus’ challenge of a new community and new teachings. Any hopes the followers of Jesus had about a change to the status quo, about being freed from oppressive religious and government leaders was lying motionless, sealed away from their sight. Would any of them be able to continue where Jesus had left off? Could anyone pick up that yoke? Would any of them be able or willing to follow this terrible path Jesus had walked? It was pretty clear now.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Mark 8:34 (NRSV)
This statement was not so easily dismissed anymore. It was very clear that Jesus ACTUALLY meant what he said. Following Jesus and enacting the Kingdom of God he was talking about actually led him to die on a cross. This is what happens even when we pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This statement of Jesus was not symbolic. This was not a nice parable or a twist of phrase Jesus used to challenge the Pharisees.
This statement was prophetic.
On Friday it became real.
On Saturday it became a challenge.
As any disciple knows, you follow your rabbi so close that you can know what he might do at any moment. You follow and learn to do what your rabbi does because you want to be just like your rabbi. As of Saturday, that means more than healing and feeding people. That must have looked easy compared to the last few days. Now, being a disciple of Jesus meant walking a path that led to death. If they killed Jesus, they will kill his disciples too if they continue his teaching, ministry and work.
This “Kingdom of God” Jesus preached about looks nothing like the disciples must have expected. On Saturday, there is no victory. There is no glory. God’s promised Kingdom and Messiah are seemingly rotting away in a tomb. Rome is still in charge, the Jewish leaders are standing triumphant. It looks like nothing has changed…
Saturday causes that challenge to loom large over our heads as Jesus lays in the tomb, sealed off from us. What do our expectations of God’s kingdom look like? What do we do when Jesus does not fit what we thought he was? Has everything really changed like Jesus said, or is it the same as it was? What happens when the voice of God falls silent, as if it’s been sealed off from us? What do we do when the powers of the world seem to stand triumphant over the lifeless body of our Messiah? Can we still carry the cross of Christ and follow him? Can we still declare, “Here is my King”?
It’s tempting to say, do not lose hope because Easter is tomorrow and everything changes. But, I do not want to skip ahead too fast. The silence of Holy Saturday forces us to examine our faith like nothing else. How we respond on Holy Saturday is when we discover how Jesus has impacted our lives.
Do we throw up our hands at the sealed and guarded tomb, proclaim the powers of the world victorious and live our lives as if Jesus words meant nothing?
Or, can we stand up, pick up the cross of Jesus, and keep going? Do we realize that everything has changed because we have been witnesses to the life Jesus? Even though it is now glaringly obvious where that life leads?