It’s Holy Saturday, the day before the Big Event, also known as Easter. I am with my younger daughter, who asks me over morning coffee and the New York Times if I missed it. And for some reason I know immediately what she means.
“Do you miss it?” she asks again because I am taking longer than usual to respond.
I no longer remember what prompted her question, or why she thought of the subject just then, though the day must hold memories for her. She remembers all the Easters of her childhood, and she remembers that I wasn’t around for any of them. I always left the house in the dark, sometimes as early as 4am, for a sunrise service or one more reading of my sermon or one more inspection of the church. Over the years, being the first person at a darkened church on Easter morning became my personal act of worship, often the only one of the day.
In my absence, my wife would get our daughters ready to go to church, with a special hairstyle, colorful dresses, a corsage, and sometimes a playful hat chosen just for the day. I know this because I have seen the photos of my children on Easter, as they were growing up.
I missed all of that getting dressed and getting ready, just as I missed the Easter baskets filled with candy and hidden around the house (though never too well). I would stumble home mid-afternoon, exhausted. I would have no energy to be pleasant with anyone. I seldom even had the energy to do the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, my usual form of relaxation on Sunday afternoon. I would be spent and say so, though everyone could see that I was, and then I would go to bed early.
Another Easter. I was always relieved to have survived one more.
Holy Saturday never had any special meaning for me. I was never even aware that there was a day known as Holy Saturday, until I became a Presbyterian pastor more than 40 years ago. For me, it was never a day to pause and reflect with a feeling of anticipation, which I think is the liturgical purpose of the day, remembering those hours when Jesus was lying low, waiting for his triumphant resurrection.
Holy Saturday for me was never even “holy,” as I understand the word. It was mostly a day to get ready for the show, which is how I came to think of all those Easters. They were a show that I was not only responsible for, but one of the main actors in. I was writer, director, producer, and actor. I was responsible for a small army of staff and volunteers, musicians and parking lot attendants. Jesus had only a small part; I had to manage everything.
The Saturday before Easter was nearly as busy and exhausting as Easter itself. I felt responsible for making the worship space look just so, usually with rows and rows of white Easter lilies, newly delivered and starting to open, with their distinctive and pleasing scent. I usually listened briefly to choirs and brass quartets rehearse, spoke to the sound engineer, greeted the head usher, was reassured by the church treasurer that the largest offering of the year would be safe, and even watched the children’s ministry director manage the annual Easter egg hunt, always, I thought, an odd custom for Holy Saturday. But there was never any time to ask questions about that.
I would eventually retreat to my office and take one more look at my sermon, which I had finished the day before and which was as good then as it was ever going to be. But in my compulsiveness about the day, I couldn’t look away. I tinkered and fiddled with it, until I couldn’t stand the sight of it.
My wife was surprisingly understanding about all of this, or else she had long ago given up hope that this particular weekend would ever be any different. She did suggest, early on, that I buy corsages for my daughters, so that they could wear them to church. This tradition, I learned, was started by her father, who had four daughters, not just two, to think about. Getting a corsage on Easter was a happy childhood memory that my wife was eager to pass along to our daughters.
So, on my way home from church, though still focused on the church and not my family, I would stop at the local florist and pay for the corsages, which my wife had ordered earlier in the week. I brought them home and put them in the refrigerator, which was the extent of my role in the tradition. Looking back, though, I think my wife kept this tradition alive for me as much as for my daughters. Each year she could say, “Look what dad got for you!” Even when they were young, though, my daughters must have seen through this deception.
Curiously, one of my most satisfying Easter memories occurred far away from the church and, as I recall, involved no one from my church. For a few years, while living in Wheaton, Illinois, I stopped on my way to the church to pick up a couple dozen donuts from a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, and one year I stood in line and spotted Lou Diaz, the pastor of the Evangelical Free church, standing just ahead of me. I practically shouted, “Lou, Christ is risen!” He turned around, recognized me, and with a wide smile said, “He is risen indeed!” We then chatted a bit about our plans for the day, and when I came to the cash register, I once again said, “Christ is risen.”
The response from the clerk was mostly sullen, as I should have expected, but I persisted. I said, “Try it. Tell everyone who comes in today that Christ is risen. Right, Lou?” And Lou, who was waiting for me to pay, agreed with me, and we had a good laugh, along with a few other people in line. And then—the reason I remember this story—I learned later in the day that everyone that morning at that Dunkin’ Donuts was greeting each other enthusiastically with “Christ is risen,” along with the story about two local pastors who happened to meet up in line much earlier in the day.
I can’t say exactly why the story brought such pleasure, except that it felt, and it still feels, like a bit of Easter joy, breaking out unexpectedly in an unexpected place, like that first Easter morning.
No rehearsal, but something spontaneous, which I never was on Easter.
I’m not sure when the trend started, but these days most really big churches rent stadiums for their Easter services. One of the megachurches in Fort Lauderdale, a city where I served a church later in my life, once held its Easter service at what is now called Hard Rock Stadium, home to the Miami Dolphins, with a seating capacity of nearly 65,000. That church, which took as its name Calvary (denoting a place of suffering), had a perfectly good auditorium with 3800 seats and an excellent sound system. They were able to fill it several times each weekend, beginning with a couple of services on Saturday afternoon and evening.
But for Easter none of that was enough.
I was disapproving of this and smirked about it, as I am now while typing the words, but I wonder if my own church was all that different. Smaller, certainly, but aspiring to some of the same goals. Every year, early on Easter morning—we referred to the 8am service as a “sunrise service,” even though the sun had been up for a couple of hours—the church offered an Easter service in nearby Colee Hammock Park, a lovely green oasis along the New River, which flows from the Everglades to the Atlantic Ocean. The homes surrounding the park (and the church) were worth many millions of dollars, and the park was a frequent site for lavish weddings. An odd choice, now that I think about it, for something like Easter worship.
Over a thousand chairs had to be set up, along with a sound system and sturdy platform. All the chairs were filled by the time I stood up to preach, and I was surprised to see that a scattering of boats had anchored nearby as well, so that people could watch and listen from the comfort of their boats, several of which made the short trip over from the Lauderdale Yacht Club.
The truth is, I was feeling pretty good about myself at that moment and looking forward to preaching again—indoors and air-conditioned this time—to similar-sized crowds at 9:30 and 11:00. I think I cared less about the resurrection at that point than I did about my career which, I must say, seemed to be going rather well. Not many of my seminary classmates, I figured, would be surrounded by full orchestras and a hundred choir members in robes.
So, do I miss it? The answer, which surprised me when I finally gave it to my daughter, was “a little.”
I don’t miss the show of course. I am still filled with regret about all the effort I put into creating the show, entirely missing the point of the day. For years, always in service to ever-larger crowds and offerings and orchestras, I threw myself into something that I knew, at some level, was shallow and empty and in most ways a mockery of Easter.
I remember reading—it was the Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner who pointed this out—that the Christmas story is far more dramatic and lends itself to pageants and chancel dramas, with sheep and shepherds, camels and wise men. On Easter morning, by comparison, nothing much happens.
Matthew mentions an earthquake, something that Luke and John curiously omit, and apparently some Roman guards became frightened and had to be paid off, but there isn’t enough in any of the accounts for a really good stage play.
Easter, as we know, began in the dark with few people around. Some women came, as the sky was starting to lighten toward dawn, and they were hauling a large load of burial spices. John’s gospel says that someone named Nicodemus contributed a hundred Roman pounds of the stuff, about 33 kilos, worth (some say) tens of thousands in today’s dollars, definitely a good Easter offering.
The women weren’t going to the tomb to witness a spectacle, however, like the shepherds who once raced to Bethlehem “to see this thing that has come to pass.” Instead, the women were on their way to do a terrible job. And then, when they arrived, there was an angel. Or was it two? Or was it a young man? There is no agreement on what anyone saw because it was dark, and beyond that no one had expected to see anything worth remembering.
The words they heard were similarly not all that dramatic, at least not at first: “He is not here. He is risen.” A chorus of the heavenly host might have joined in right then to offer an exclamation point. The moment, in my opinion, definitely called for something. When no chorus appeared, the women abandoned their spices and ran to tell the men who, predictably enough, did not believe them, because their account, as the story puts it, “seemed like nonsense.” The theme of the morning seems to have been fear and disbelief, not joy to the world.
The theme I should have preached is that hardly anyone gets it right away. Like the disciples, most of us are a little slow. I was definitely on the slower side. Faith takes a while, sometimes a very long time, which doesn’t make for a rousing Easter sermon, the kind I thought I was expected to preach. It wasn’t until the sun was high overhead that a few of the earliest disciples began to catch on, and even then there were many more who doubted.
I have always found comfort in that—the slowness to catch on as an almost universal characteristic of faith. For me the truth of it all took years to sink in. It happened in fact long after I retired. Once I no longer felt responsible for putting on a show, I too started to get it. I even started to enjoy Easter a little.