Life in a Long Holy Saturday

[This is one of the posts telling a story about the life of my dad. Click here to see the others.]

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Good Friday this year would have been my dad's 70th birthday. I had noticed that ahead of time on the calendar, and was aware of it, but I didn’t really think it would be a big deal to me. While he was alive, my father made the least fuss about birthdays of anyone I’ve ever known, so making a big deal about his birthday in the few years since his death has always seemed a bit unfitting. 

One of the things I’ve learned about losing someone you love is that you never can predict what the things will be that will pop up and make you suddenly miss them intensely (like I wrote about a while back as I almost lost it over a Spam sandwich). On the morning of Good Friday, I woke up fine, expecting to give a good deal of my thoughts to the day’s stories about Jesus, but it didn’t take long for one of those kinds of surprises to catch me and leave me also spending a lot of the remainder of the day thinking about my dad. 

It happened when I first saw my two-year-old daughter that morning. Dad never got to meet her, but one week before he died, we were able to tell him that my wife was pregnant. He would have loved this little girl like crazy, and she would have soaked his love in and then returned every bit of it in a way that only she can do.

She’s in a stage now where anything that we call a “special day” is a major event to be exhilarated about, and then if we use the word, “party,” she’s likely to blow an adrenaline circuit. She’s always looking for any excuse to put on her tutu and eat cake or candy, and the special days and parties are obvious opportunities to do such things. So, when I saw her that morning, what we would have been doing if her granddad had still been here instantly flashed before my mind. She would have worn her favorite pink tutu, opened the door at his house, run to him with pigtails bouncing and given him a happy birthday hug and kiss, giving a big grin to my dad and all of us with her incomparable laugh.

Instead of doing that, we did the best we could and looked at pictures of him on the computer. Her comments revealed that she’s old enough now to recognize that she wasn’t in any of them.

I used to be on staff at a church that had been around since the late 1800s, and as many older churches did, had its own cemetery. If it wasn’t raining on Easter morning, we always had a sunrise service there among the gravestones.

Those graveside Easters were new experiences for me. At the time, I thought that it was a clever experiential component we were trying to add to people’s Easter worship. It made sense –– the women in the gospel stories went looking for Jesus among the dead on the first Easter morning, so we gathered there on Easter mornings to give ourselves a taste of the shock they must have experienced when, first, his body wasn’t there, then later, they encountered their resurrected rabbi.

It wasn’t until a number of years after I no longer worked at that church and no longer had the chance to participate in their cemetery celebrations of Easter that I realized that wasn’t what we were doing –– or at least, it wasn’t all of what we were doing. Sometime in the years in between those services and the shift in the way that I remember them, my understanding of the Christian view of the resurrection changed dramatically (largely thanks to reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope).

Many of the Jews of Jesus’ time believed that a day would come when God would resurrect everyone as part of God’s remaking and joining together of heaven and earth. We see this in Martha’s comment to Jesus after the death of Lazarus:

“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’”

In other words, when Jesus died, none of his followers sat around wondering whether God would do the miraculous and bring Jesus back to life, because they simply didn’t have any framework for the possibility of a one-person resurrection. Yes, Jesus healed Lazarus and others who had died, but the possibility of Jesus coming out of his own tomb wasn’t on their radar.

That first Easter (obviously) changed everything for Jesus’ followers, and among the things it changed was that scripture-grounded Jewish belief about the resurrection. But Jesus’ resurrection didn’t cause them to let go of their hope of a future time when all of God’s people would be brought back to real, physical, bodily life in the new heavens and new earth. It wasn’t as if they thought, “Oh, we were close on that point, but apparently it was only going to happen to Jesus rather than to all of us, and now we all get to go be with him in heaven forever rather than waiting for these bodies to come back out of their graves.” 

No, the early Christian belief was that what happened to Jesus was the foretaste of what will eventually happen to us all. In other words, that phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that says, “I believe in…the resurrection of the body” not only means that when I was in my church’s cemetery on those Easter Sundays, I should have been thinking about the shock of the first disciples to discover that Jesus was risen –– I should have also been thinking about how what happened to Jesus will one day also happen to the people who were laid to rest in that cemetery where we gathered each year to sing the words,

Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
…made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!

Once I had my thinking about the resurrection blown open by N.T. Wright, and I realized what it was that those small groups of us were doing on Easter mornings in that church cemetery, I wanted to get something of that experience back again. So this year, on Holy Saturday, my wife and I took our kids to the local cemetery. We weren’t really using it as a theological object lesson for them, but instead were taking advantage of the fact that they have a lot of family history between two cemeteries in our town. Beginning with their great-great-great grandfather, every generation on my dad’s side is buried here. 


As we stood with our preschool-age children by the graves of their ancestors and pointed out to them which ones shared the nicknames or initials we’ve given them (and my daughter enjoyed putting pink flowers on the gravestones –– any gravestones, whether from our family or not), I won’t pretend that either of my kids made any connection to Easter or expressed any profound insight about resurrection. Instead, as we drove out of the cemetery, I remember thinking how appropriate it was that, on the previous day, we had grieved the deaths of both Jesus and my dad; on the day following, we would celebrate one’s resurrection while looking forward to that of the other. And in the meantime, life is often a kind of long Holy Saturday.

But…because of what happened to our ancient Jewish rabbi on that Sunday so long ago, I can look forward with a tremendous amount of hope to that day when my dad and my little girl will get to see each other. He’ll love her like crazy, she’ll soak it in and return every bit of it in a way that only she can do. I’m willing to bet she will run to him (pigtails or otherwise) and give him a hug and kiss. Then I will, for the first time, get to simultaneously see that grin on his face and hear her incomparable laugh.