Scripture tells us very little about what happened to Jesus on Holy Saturday between the crucifixion and the resurrection. We know simply that Christ descended into hell.
The week prior to his crucifixion, Jesus had triumphantly entered Jerusalem. It was the pinnacle of his earthly reign. Five days later, Roman guards nailed him to a cross. Even though Jesus had forecast his impending death, his disciples were stunned. As Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepared the Savior’s body for burial, the disciples must have all had their own unique experiences of fear, confusion, and grief.
The tomb, with the boulder sealing the entrance, comes to symbolize not only physical death but powerlessness, waiting, and the end of earthly dreams.
Two observations about westerners—we hate waiting and we like having the illusion of being in control. When we enter our metaphoric tombs and discover that we have about as much control over the logistics as when we try to brake on black-ice, it’s utterly disorienting.
As the tomb door closes behind us and we hear the bolt slide in place from the outside, any illusion of power disappears in the darkness. We choke down an unfamiliar cocktail of shock, protest, and claustrophobia. We want to makes sense of what’s happening. We want the pain to disappear. We want to find the door and escape. Our inability to do so makes us feel all the more out of control.
Though we face an incredible loss of control and loss of objectivity during these junctures, we do have power over our response. Author Jerry Sittser—who lost his mother, wife, and one of his children in a head-on crash with a drunk driver— writes,
The decision to face the darkness, even if it led to overwhelming pain, showed me that the experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It’s not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us. (A Grace Disguised)
In that space of fully understanding the limits of our power, we can realize our desperate need for a Savior. Choosing faith does not mean that we disregard our emotions or deny our reality but rather that we allow suffering to re-arrange our inner landscape.
James wrote to the Jewish Christians (who were brutally persecuted by both Jews and Romans), “Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
For many years, I failed to understand that these verses present us with a holy alternative. I now paraphrase them as, Would you consider choosing joy in the midst of your suffering because what you are going through has the potential to help you grow? Choosing a joy that originates from and flows through God invites hope into the tomb and the presence of hope is a game-changer.
We can now wait with expectancy rather than dread. As our eyes gradually adjust, we make startling discoveries. There in the corner sits a friend holding us up in prayer. We hear Jesus’ voice speaking of his love for us. And we believe it. Perhaps for the first time. One of the most unexpected gifts for me has been the expansion of my soul. Pre-tomb, I was an emotional agnostic. Then, grief broke my heart open. It was as if the pain created room for a full-range of healthy emotions including empathy, anger, and yes, joy.
Such radical transformation doesn’t happen unless we partner with God and allow his resurrection power to breathe new life into us. When we do, we are transformed. We will no longer be able to read the news without being moved to tears. We will risk our reputations to push back against injustice. We will spend our vacations building homes for the homeless or making food for the hungry. In other words, we will become more like Jesus.
And it is for this reason that we must not rush from the crucifixion to the resurrection. We must let the tomb complete its work in us.
Christ has risen.