Waiting for Renewal: Holy Saturday and COVID-19

by Anna Berry and Jenna Frush

This week, Christians around the globe observe the arrival of Holy Week. Maundy Thursday marks the washing of feet, the breaking of bread, and the drinking of wine. On Good Friday, forty days of fasting and penance culminate in the crucifixion, with Easter Sunday celebrations following a short forty-eight hours later. Though we rightfully anticipate resurrection, we often do not mark Holy Saturday, the space of waiting in between.

Theologian Shelly Rambo rediscovers Holy Saturday in the context of trauma. In her view, Christians can all too easily mask the grief of crucifixion and the agony of Holy Saturday by moving too swiftly to the celebration of resurrection.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves in a time of profound uncertainty, fear, and suffering. Though we call this time “unprecedented” – and it surely is for us – we discover common ground with the disciples’ experiences on the day following the crucifixion. What would it mean for us to rediscover Holy Saturday and, in doing so, to hold fast to the hope of renewal while faithfully acknowledging the suffering of the present?

Holy Saturday was wrought with disorientation and fear. Consider the perspective of Jesus’ followers whose primary vocation was just that: to follow Jesus, to learn from him, and to participate with him in ministry—ministry that at least some of them hoped would redeem Israel from Roman rule and oppression. In the days before the crucifixion they were with him, preaching the good news, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry.

Imagine their bewilderment when Jesus, the one that had bid them come and follow, walked without resistance into the hands of his accusers to be crucified on a Roman cross. Their lives were utterly upended.

Fear took hold as the disciples fled.  They gathered together, not to eagerly await the promised resurrection, but rather to hide and to mourn, terrified and isolated.

With cities across the world in lockdown, storefronts shuttered, and universities closed, uncertainty has become abruptly pervasive over the past few months. Those who are lucky enough to keep their jobs adapt to working from home, while more than 6.6 million others have newly filed for unemployment to make ends meet.

We are forced to reimagine our practices, individual and communal, that otherwise have been taken for granted. While the interruption of our leisure activities is disappointing, limitations on practices held sacred by many such as church services, weddings, deaths, and funerals is deeply painful.

Fear is also ever present. As medical students, we see the courage and fear of our colleagues who work tirelessly to care for patients, many doing so without appropriate protective gear. As sisters, daughters, and friends, we perceive fear in our broader society. Worse than the worry of contracting the virus ourselves is the fear that one of our loved ones will succumb to illness.

Though many of these fears prompt us to take appropriate precautions, some fear breeds evil. This is especially clear in the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans in recent months.

How, then, do we respond? Just as Mary Magdalene and the disciples wept after the crucifixion of Christ, we also grieve in the midst of suffering.

We mourn the affliction of those affected with coronavirus. We mourn with the ones whom the dead have left behind. We mourn the inability to gather face to face, to hug, to share meals and communion. We mourn the tasks that have gone unfinished, the experiences without closure. We mourn the vulnerability of the downtrodden, such as those experiencing domestic violence, who are put in harm’s way. We mourn the loss of livelihoods for those who find themselves suddenly without work. We mourn the risk of essential workers, both within and without the healthcare field. We mourn the isolation of loved ones from their friends and families, especially those on the brink of death in an intensive care unit.

Though it is tempting to triumphally skip to the resurrection or, in the time of COVID-19, the hope of the end of the pandemic, Shelly Rambo asks in her work Spirit and Trauma:  A Theology of Remaining: “what if theologians did not perform this rescue? Perhaps the divine story is neither a tragic one nor a triumphant one but, in fact, a story of divine remaining, the story of love that survives. It is a cry arising from the abyss. The question is: can we witness it?”

The bloody gashes of Friday did not heal by Sunday.  Jesus appeared to the disciples with his wounds.  We are feeling the weight of these wounds, now more than ever, and we long for resurrection.  But for now, like the early disciples, we wait.

–Anna Berry is a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine and Jenna Frush is a medical student at Duke University School of Medicine.   Both are current Fellows in Theology, Medicine, and Culture at Duke Divinity School.

-image: The Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton, public domain.