Louise was one of my best friends. Lovely, loving, and loyal. She was a beautiful person inside and out. I knew she was unwell but I never realised how unwell until one day, I received a message to say she had died. She was about to turn 40 years old with the best of life ahead of her, and yet she had been snatched away by the Big C. At the funeral I wept uncontrollably, and even now whenever I think about her a deep pain emerges within me and my eyes fill with tears.
We have all known someone whose life has been stolen from them, and us, by death. Many of us have suffered or have walked with friends through irreparable marriage breakdown, the unspeakable horror of the loss of a child, or the shattering brutality of domestic violence. Looking wider still, we are moved by reports of people trafficking, modern day slavery and terrorist atrocities. Our natural response to these awful situations is to wonder if God is really there. How, we wonder, do we keep faith in a God who would allow such things?
This is the place in which Jesus Christ’s disciples found themselves on Holy Saturday. Their friend, their teacher, the man they hoped would bring freedom to their people had been killed and laid in a tomb. Hope had gone, and heaven was silent. There were no miracles that day; the blind did not see, the lame did not walk, the imprisoned were not set free and there was no good news for the poor.
The disciples and Jesus’ other followers thought it was the end. They didn’t understand the act of sacrificial love they had witnessed on Good Friday, nor did they have any idea of the hope-filled resurrection to come on Easter Sunday. All they knew was a sense of hopelessness, abandonment and despair. And we too live through such experiences at different times in our lives. Even those with the deepest of faiths experience seasons of silence, when our greatest questions go unanswered. Despite our best attempts, these experiences and emotions cannot be avoided or ignored. Nor should they. They are part of what it means to be human and alive. From the cross Jesus, the Son of God himself cried out to his Father, ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ If he, who knew how the story would end, could feel and express such things, how much more can we?
As much as my loss of Louise and other friends is painful, it is life’s mixture of happiness, pain and aspiration that makes it so rich. It is in the experiences of love, despair and hope that we live life, illustrated at their heights by the sacrificial love of Good Friday, the hopeless despair of Holy Saturday and the unstoppable hope of Easter Sunday.
Recently I had the privilege of speaking to an audience of Christians at one of London’s well known arenas. I spoke about how Cinnamon Network is helping churches start community projects to serve people in need. I often describe the effect of local people serving their neighbours in this way as ‘lighting up their communities’. The auditorium was dark and so at the end of my talk I invited the audience to take out their mobile phones, turn on their torch apps and hold them in the air. The view of 40,000 lights being held high in the air was breath-taking. I read from the Bible ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5).
That verse, of course, refers to Jesus, who later referred to himself as the ‘light of the world’. The darkness we see in our ‘Holy Saturday’ world often seems poised to overcome the light. It certainly seemed as though the darkness of death had overcome Jesus on that first Holy Saturday. But the promise was proved to be true. The darkness did not overcome the light. It never does.