07 April 2007

Holy Saturday

When we die
Do we haunt the sky?
Do we lurk in the murk of the seas?
And what then?
Are we born again
Just to sit asking questions like these?
Spinal Tap
If your leaders tell you the Kingdom is in the sky, then the birds of the air will get there before you. If it's in the sea, then the fish will get there first. But the Kingdom is inside you.
Jesus of Nazareth
Among the strangely-named holidays of the season--Fat Tuesday, Palm Sunday, Bleeding Wednesday, Screaming Thursday and the like--comes a kind of pause. Holy Saturday falls between the excitement of Good Friday and the mystery of Easter Sunday, and is the one point in the narrative where we can say with assurance that Jesus is dead. What was he doing on this day? Was he shaking down hell for all the patriarchs and virtuous pagans and whoever else would believe in him, as the story has it? Or was he lying quietly in his tomb? Or did he meet the more common fate of the crucified--his body dumped nameless with others who shared his shameful execution?

We have one, and only one, early gospel account that claims to be by an eyewitness. This fragment turned up maybe a hundred years ago, from a medieval manuscript containing an excerpt from a lost gospel, The Gospel of Peter. (Peter is also supposedly responsible for the earliest reference to the harrowing of hell in a letter that made it into the New Testament itself, after years of struggle.) And what does Peter say happened? Well, it seems that the Judean authorities posted guards at the tomb, and while they watched a voice shouted from above and a bright light appeared from the sky, while two men calmly walked into the tomb, the rock blocking the entrance rolling away by itself. The guards promptly woke up their centurion and the elders, who were keeping watch nearby, according to the text. (Peter shows he has a keen sense of the absurd here.) While all of them are watching, an interesting procession comes forth from the tomb--the two men who had come down from the sky, another man, and a cross. The first two men were now so tall that their heads just brushed the sky itself, while the third man is even taller--his head is higher than the sky. A voice overhead asks, "Have you spoken with those who are asleep?" The cross takes it upon itself to answer this question in the affirmative. At this point the witnesses debate among themselves whether to tell Pilate or not, and decide that they should. While still another guy comes down from the sky and into the tomb, the guards, centurion, and elders all go and call upon Pilate. Pilate takes the news rather well, all things considered. "Well, it was your idea to execute the guy, not mine," he observes to the elders, and then orders everybody to say nothing to anybody about the whole affair.

Which, of course, brings up the obvious question, how did Peter know about it. Was he a direct witness to the supernatural goings-on? Well, not really. "But we, the Lord's twelve disciples, cried and felt sad. Each of us, feeling bad about what had happened, went home." We may suppose, I imagine, that one of the witnesses told Peter about the strange events in spite of Pilate's order. (I don't suppose it was at all likely that Pilate would be Peter's source.) But Peter doesn't tell us, at least not in the extant text of the fragment.

Of course modern scholars don't believe that Peter wrote this gospel any more than they believe that he wrote the two letters or the "preaching" put out in his name. (And if I'm any judge of style we're looking at three or four different authors here at least. Still Peter must have been a busy man, what with opposing Simon Magus and being the cornerstone of the church and all, and maybe he just hired scribes to write his gospel and letters and preaching and so on...) But this is the only available account that claims to have been written by somebody who was there, and that gives a picture of where the information may have come from. In fact, as far as I can tell, it is the closest thing we have of an account of the resurrection. It certainly gives the impression that there were some pretty strange goings-on that Saturday night in Jerusalem.

What about the other gospels? Thomas never tells us anything about the resurrection as such; Mark ends with the discovery that Jesus' tomb is empty. For the rest--John, Matthew, that strange piece from an unknown gospel tacked onto the end of Mark, and so on--they skip the resurrection altogether and get straight on to the various appearances of the Lord, whose animated corpse has returned zombie-like from the dead. "Handle me and see," it said, "that I am not a bodiless demon." At least one of the disciples took it up on the deal and checked to see that the corpse itself was in fact present, and that this wasn't some bizarre dream. Even the wounds were still fresh. It's a grisly picture, and I personally have never felt comfortable reading about the situation until the reanimated body finally flies off into the sky. The Holy Ghost may be a bit spooky, what with the snake-handling and talking in tongues and all--but it's downright friendly compared to zombie-Jesus.

But all's quiet on Holy Saturday. We probably needed a break. I know I did.

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