Each Holy Week, I have made it a practice to watch Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light (1963). In black-and-white, and with the starkness characteristic of most of his films, it depicts one day in the life of a Lutheran pastor named Tomas Ericsson. To say that his congregation has diminished, that it has fallen on hard times, is an understatement. While a smattering of worshippers still show up for services, his church is nearly as barren as our own have become, after having been cleared out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And more, he has lost the touch. He no longer knows how to reach his people. He struggles to speak to their fears, their anxieties and their crises of faith. He lacks the words to help them confront the globalized fear of his own day — the Cold War prospect of imminent nuclear annihilation. And so he is left with this overwhelming sense of his own helplessness and the futility of his efforts.
Perhaps amid the crisis of our day we experience that helplessness, too, and are confronted with that same sense of futility. It is certainly futile to think we can resolve the challenge that confronts us. For as comforting as it might be to believe, we do not in fact control the pandemic, we are subject to it.
The questions that Tomas is met with, like our own, are simple. What do we do in the face of the helplessness and inability to make things come around, as we would want them to? In whom do we place our faith? Or do we give up faith all together?
These questions, I think, are at the heart of Holy Saturday. It follows the death of Christ on Good Friday but comes before his triumph at Easter. In this interlude, which is really a spiritual chasm, we are confronted with apparent failure. The tomb door is still closed. The forces of sin and death still seemingly have their sway. It is the time of supreme Godforsaken-ness.
On Good Friday is the cry, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And as of Holy Saturday, there is no answer. Likewise, we await the answer to our own cry: “God, where are you in the midst of all this?” “God, do not abandon me, do not abandon us, to it.”
The invitation of Holy Saturday is not to retreat into simplistic piety that ignores the enormity of what we face. Empty theology and shallow culture are now exposed for what they are — smokescreens to hide from us what we would rather not confront. But if we take Holy Saturday and this time of pandemic seriously, that smokescreen and the evasion it enables will simply not do.
The entire purpose of this Holy Week — as is the case with the life of discipleship more generally — is to become ever more intimately united to the mystery of Christ’s life. The prospect of uniting ourselves with Christ’s triumph is for us no problem. Uniting ourselves, however, with his suffering is a different story. And to unite ourselves with his apparent failure, that might simply be a bridge too far.
In one of Winter Light’s more notable scenes, the church sexton Algot discusses Christ’s passion with Tomas. For years he has been plagued by enormous pain, to the point — as he cheekily observes — that he has almost certainly endured more physical suffering than that of Christ. But he brings this up only to make clear that the emphasis on Christ’s physical afflictions is misplaced. That is not his greatest trial. Instead, it is Christ’s experience of total alienation. His efforts are now seemingly pointless. His actions are met without comprehension or even the slightest understanding. He is abandoned by almost all who had previously professed their love for him. Most of all, there is that still unanswered cry of his: “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”
To unite ourselves with Christ on Holy Saturday is to unite ourselves with him in his helplessness and apparent futility, awaiting that answer — to really go to the end with him.
And there, what will we say? Will we still have faith?
Staring out at an empty church, having failed in almost every conceivable way, the words roll off Tomas’ lips: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.”
What words will come forth from our lips, if we decide to truly be with Christ this Holy Saturday, amid the pandemic that surrounds us?
Father Andrew Clyne writes from Maryland.