Stephen McGinty: Just another Holy Saturday

It’s the least exciting day in the ‘greatest story ever told’, so what happened between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection – or after the drama and before the Easter eggs are eaten, asks Stephen McGinty

Today is Easter Saturday. Go on, admit it. It’s a lousy sort of day. Doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Good Friday” or “Easter Sunday”.

The former has all the horror and violence. The scourging, the crown woven from thorns clamped down on a weary man’s head. The driven nails, the raised cross and the three hours of shortening breath. The great lines: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” and “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”. The image of a distraught mother looking up at her son. The spear point, the pool of water and blood. The darkening sky. The latter has all the mystery. A rolled stone. An empty tomb. A woven shroud uncoiled and undone. The unbelievable leap of faith that above us is a loving presence who conquered death. A God that resurrected his son and promises us no less. A fantasy, too good to be true, surely?

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And then there is this dull day that lies between them. A day of death, when nothing happens. As a child, I remember Easter Saturday having a tedious, irritating quality. The chocolate eggs on top of the television weren’t to be touched until after Easter Sunday Mass, when they would quickly be shattered into a collage of edible shards. The plastic packet of buttons saved, of course, until last. There was a heaviness in the air. A stillness. At our local church, Our Holy Redeemer, the figure on the cross would be covered up in a purple shroud. There would be no Mass, perhaps the only day of the year when this was the case.

What was going on for all those hours between 3pm on Friday and dawn on Sunday? In the fourth century AD, the notion emerged that He had descended into Hades, not the Hell conjured up later by the medieval mind, but a land of the dead where He brought salvation to all of the just who had died since the beginning of time. Today, another shroud, of what hue I don’t quite know, has been quietly pulled over this interpretation. No. He was dead. Alone in the tomb. Waiting.

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I could never quite get my head around the point of Easter Saturday, but, thankfully, another man, much brighter and braver than I, could, and he wrote a book about it.

Columnists don’t tend to pass out praise to other columnists, but if it wasn’t for Ron Ferguson, the Church of Scotland minister and former writer for the Herald, I’d never have heard of Alan Lewis and his difficult, challenging, comforting and brave book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. It is almost 20 years since Lewis died at the age of 49, while in mid-wrestle with the work which would be posthumously published and so make his name.

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Born in Belfast, Lewis was a student at St Andrews University, where he studied classical Hebrew under Professor WB Honeyman, an atheist who had to be ordained in order to secure his position, such was the academic system when he began his career in the 1930s. At university, Lewis met his future wife, Kay, who was chair of the St Andrews University Christian Union; then he went on to lecture at Edinburgh University, where he quickly developed a reputation as one of Scotland’s finest theologians.

In 1987, he was poached by the Austin Presbyterian Seminary in Texas with the offer of the chair of theology, but during the medical a tumour was discovered. For the next seven years, he embarked on two wearing, attritional experiences, the first was a struggle to endure the pain and despair of a terminal illness, while longing to stay with his wife and see their son grow. The second was an attempt to bore down through the layers of meaning that had coalesced for two millenniums around this strange day, which, for the faithful, was the fulcrum on which human history swung from darkness into light.

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As he wrote: “Faith’s supreme drama tells of three days which form the centre and the turning point of history. Yet ironically the centre of the drama itself is an empty space… The second day appears to be a no man’s land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel. The midway interval at the heart of the unfolding story might itself provide an excellent vantage point from which to observe the drama, understand its actors and interpret its import. The nonevent of the second day could after all be a significant zero, a pregnant emptiness, a silent nothing which says everything. We shall see.”

Easter Saturday, he concluded, was not a day of drama like the day before, or of celebration, like the day after; instead it was one of quiet endurance. It was the day in which we all must live our lives as we all eventually pick our way through suffering and death. Describing the cancer treatment, he said he endured “such losses of appearance and identity, of dignity, control and almost life itself, brought ‘Saturday’ moments of farewell, grief and preparations for the end. For like the first Easter Saturday, this was a time of unbounded waiting, of hanging on – sometimes by the hour –without any guarantee of a future to be hung on for.”

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In the book, he roams across history and seeks to shine a light on man’s inhumanity to man. Lewis wrote: “What, finally and realistically, can be said and done when everyone involved feels so impotent and tongue-tied before tragedy, grief and suffering? Little that is meaningful, this author can testify, as both victim and perpetrator of gross, sometimes hilarious, pastoral ineptitude! Little, that is, beyond a Christ-like, cruciform togetherness which weeps with those who weep and rages with those who rage. But perhaps when we do that, we do everything. If we allow our words, our manner, our status or professionalism, or – deadliest of all in certain circumstances – our breezy faith and heroic confidence, to distance us from those who doubt and stumble, weep and hurt, we surely betray the God of the cross and of the grave, obscuring the truth that their vexation is but a shadow of God’s own anger, and their tears an earthly drop on the ocean of heavenly grief.”

Re-reading chunks of the book, which can be purchased online or through Alban Books in Edinburgh, I was also reminded of my friend Frank Deasy, the screenwriter whose adaptation of The Passion was broadcast five years ago across five nights on BBC One. Frank was experiencing his own Easter Saturday while writing this high-profile drama. He had already endured and survived one bout of cancer and was, unbeknownst to him, set to go through another from which he would not survive, dying in September 2009. Yet the challenge of bringing the most famous story in the world to a new audience was one he actively sought out and relished.

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A brilliant writer of tough urban dramas, such as Waiting For JoJo, England Expects and Real Men, he was not the obvious choice, but he found telling the story of the prince of peace exhilarating. I remember having a conversation with him when he had hit a troublesome patch that he was wrestling in the same company of Martin Scorsese, Leonardo Da Vinci and Norman Mailer, who had all tried to represent the “greatest story ever told”. There was also something charming about the idea of him conjuring up the Sea of Galilee from a wooden table at the Beanscene in Shawlands, where he liked to work.

This week, I found an interview he did at the time: “The more I went into the Gospel texts, the more I found a Jesus who was intensely spiritual and for whom there was a very clearly outlined path of sacrifice itself, of one’s own vanity, of one’s own ego, of acceptance and sacrifice and unconditional love, that outward giving generosity as a response to the dangers and pain and suffering of this world. I suppose that became a sort of touchstone for me to try and find a way of dramatising it. It is a challenge to dramatise unconditional love, because it is not something that one tends to see a great deal of.”

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So if we are all trudging through a lifetime of Saturdays, as this strange and beguiling book suggests, then I just hope that after such brilliant work and stoic suffering, both Alan Lewis and Frank Deasy finally got to wake up on Sunday morning.