By John DeCostanza, Jr.
“There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”
“So God just leaves?”
“No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine . . . . ‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.'”
“But the sparrow still falls.”
–Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1)
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
On this day, we enter God’s pain and God’s silence. If we have walked this journey with the Christ, we can have no response but to rest and ponder the stillness of that tomb. This is the day that the good and the righteous wonder if death has had the final word. How is it that so short a span in the Paschal Mystery can loom so large in our Christian imagination? The mystery is truly that these hours in the tomb are the mirror of our accompaniment of Jesus in the world. There are so many people all over the world who, on a daily basis, experience the silence of this tomb. The crucifixion of the Body of Christ happens in too many places. Broken bodies are being laid in fresh hewn tombs, and God gives meaning to that suffering by caring passionately and remembering. On this day, it is important to recall that God acts and has acted and will act time and again as one of us. God is the sparrow, too.
The sparrow still falls.
Even God’s own self fell to the powers and principalities. God dies as we die. God abides both the violence of the cross and the silence that follows. God takes on death and God accompanies all of us in our death. It takes an immense kind of love (both human and Divine) to accompany us in those spaces. Burying the dead is one of the most challenging of the Corporal Works of Mercy because it resides in the gap between death’s finality and life’s new beginning. Throughout the world there are many who keep watch on the tombs where God lay, and it is not easy to stay and to pray and to watch.
This liminal space is difficult to hold. We feel the unsettling doubt of human finality. When one we love dies the questions about what’s next naturally come to the fore. My family and I were speaking just last night about a beloved uncle who died ten years ago. His absence has created holes in all of us. Hope and love continues to bind us and my uncle abides in that. I know that we will see him again, but that day is not yet here. In some sense, this will continue: to know death and to not yet have experienced God’s glory in making the world right is to linger in the uncertainties of the tomb. We are a Christian people that hopes for that time when death will be no more. Pain emerges when we reflect on Holy Saturday and we must squarely face the fact that death remains part of our journey.
We all could do well to try and honor that death is a part of life as much as we are able. Without it hope cannot emerge. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of the things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We cannot fully see all the ways that God rolls back the stone. We have confidence that the God that we have lived for and the community through which we have known God’s love lives on in us and in others. Hopefulness is not joy, nor is it the baptism of suffering as God’s will. Christian hope is the certainty of knowing that we are accompanied in the questions and uncertainties of our life together, in the dark of the tomb. Christian hope is knowing it is God who accompanies, and it is Jesus who went before us. Christian hope is knowing that death is not final and that seal of the tomb has been broken.
The challenge and the grace of this day in our liturgical year are in having faith that the morning brings light. We must have faith that this, indeed, is the night.
John DeCostanza, Jr. is Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL, and a D.Min. candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.
(1) Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. 401.