A Holy Saturday Meditation: When the Sun Refused to Shine…

This morning the light dawned after the sadness and fear of Good Friday, but our hearts are sore as we remember the crucified body of Jesus lies in the tomb.  That is the meaning of this day in Holy Week, known as Holy Saturday, a day of unknowing tears that will end, I am told, with the great Easter vigil and our first knowledge of the Resurrection.  I am looking forward to participating in my first Easter Vigil tonight, an ecumenical version sponsored by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church here in DC and including members of many denominational churches in the area.

Right now, though, I’m thinking about everything we heard and saw yesterday — the humiliation, the pain, the release — the human-ness of the experience.  In last nights sermon at Christ Church, the Deacon who was preaching said it so well — maybe, after the resurrection, we might be more like Christ but tonight he is most like us.

That service, like many Good Friday remembrances throughout the world, ended with the singing of the simple spiritual, “Were You There?” and I have been thinking that, while a wonderful close to the Good Friday experience, it is a really a song for this day, for Holy Saturday.   The text and the music evoke that deep poignancy of waiting in a way that I believe could only be communicated by those who have waited for so long in slavery and with only the slightest hope of freedom.

As with many spirituals, we do not really know the source of the song or the text.  We do know that it was first transcribed in 1899 and there are reasons to suspect that the song itself predates the Civil War.  It may be derived from a white spiritual popular in Tennessee during those years, “Have you heard how they crucified my lord,” but there is no way to be certain of a relationship between the two.

Origins, however, matter only a little when you are sitting with a group of worshipers, contemplating this passage of time before the resurrection.   The uncertainty, the pain, the fear, the utter confusion of it all — and yet, I can sedise the disciples being oh so human as they hide, wondering about their own fate in the face of the events of the previous days.  We humans, we are a curious lot and I doubt that that is any different today than it was in the days of Jesus.  “Were you there,” we would ask our neighbor.   Did you see it?  Can you tell the tale?  It makes me shake all over just to think about it — to think about what happened, to think that I was not strong enough to be there, to be with him, to walk this part of the journey by his side.  They could have remembered the many promises he made to them, that he would return, that he would send an Advocate to guide them — but they did not.

The structure of the song, like that of many spirituals, is in call and response style, although we seldom sing it that way.  Using that style would, I think, bring out the kind of keening sense to the words — in call and response the gentle sadness of the music would take on a greater depth of corporate morning.  Sung as a congregational hymn, it somehow allows the personal sense of loss to overtake the magnitude of the reality that this has happened to all of us.

There are many verses to this hymn and many times individual congregations modify the text to their own use (for example the traditional verse 4, “Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” is often omitted on Good Friday and added at the Easter Vigil).  One extra verse that does not appear in most printed versions really, to me, says it all about the meaning of this day, Holy Saturday:

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble!  tremble!  Tremble!
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

It is hard to sit with this feeling that the sun refuses to shine, but we have all felt it.  We have all suffered loss, failure, and that time when you simply do not know what will come next.   And we all have experience that feeling of loss that comes with not being there….there in the time of trouble for someone we loved, there when we were needed, there for ourselves when we most needed our own presence.

True, all of that is true.  Like the disciples before us, however, we need not sit in the dark, furtively questioning each other for bits of information.  We, like they, have heard the promise before.  But for now, we live on in the darkness, forgetting and gossiping.

The message of the days to come, the message of resurrection and Easter and the march of days towards Pentecost is just the same as that which has already been told to us:  that all is forgiven, grace is present, and we can choose to show up at any time.  Today, on Holy Saturday, we have time to think  about our choices and to prepare ourselves to make new ones.

Blessed Holy Saturday.

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