Holy Saturday’s Hell

Easter Hymn

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

A E Housman

I was introduced to this poem by David Brown at a training event earlier this year. David suggested this was a poem for Holy Saturday.

As it starts, it’s all about the “if”.
What if?
It’s a question that tortures us now, as it tortured Housman:

What if the very thing that Christian hope clings to – the death and resurrection of Christ – was only a death?
What if the dead man Christ knew nothing of the futility of his suffering?
What if, in death, he only added to the hatred of the world?
What if death is the end?

Housman then pivots his poem, his questions, on the “but”:
But if the tomb could not hold Christ,
But if Christ ascended into glory
But if Christ, in glory, remembers human suffering
But if Christ, in resurrection, transforms the darkness of death
Then surely he will see our pain and return to make it okay.

Housman was an agnostic, and this is an agnostic poem.

And is there a more agnostic moment, for Christians, than Holy Saturday?
Holy Saturday lies between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
It is a day of mystery and darkness.

Here is the liminal space between:
Death ………. and ………. resurrection
Darkness ………. and ………. light
Despair ………. and ………. hope
Sorrow ………. and ………. joy
Anxiety ………. and ………. reassurance
Giving up ………. and ………. starting afresh
Pain ………. and ………. healing
Hate ………. and ………. forgiveness
The ending ………. and ………. the beginning.

Housman’s poem is a poem for our agnostic self in our agnostic moments
(And – unless it’s just me – then even priests have agnostic moments!):

The moments in which God seems distant and all we have is unformed questions and silent answers.
The moments of longing that life could have been different, but of facing up to the reality of deep pain and disappointment.
The moments in which we question: Why? What for? Who cares?

Some Christian traditions hold that Holy Saturday was the day of the harrowing of Hell: a belief that Christ “descended into Hell” to liberate those held by Satan’s chains.

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in…

While Hades was thus discoursing to Satan, the King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him. Then turning also to the rest, He said: Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched: for, behold, I again raise you all up through the tree of the cross.

The Gospel of Nicodemus

In our “if” moments, our Holy Saturday hell, I wonder if we can hear, even distantly, the voice that thunders to our despair, our hurt, our hopelessness:
“Open your gates, and let me in!”

And I wonder in what “buts” we find glimpses of Christ’s resurrection hope?
But if there can be hope…
But if this is not the end…
But if this is a beginning…

Bow hither out of Heaven and see and save.

800px-Follower_of_Jheronimus_Bosch_-_The_Harrowing_of_Hell

Hieronymus Bosch, The Harrowing of Hell

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Hineni: Here I am

I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.

Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.

This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.

Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.

Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.

Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.

Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.

Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?

And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Here I am.
I’m ready.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Choose me.

Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.

It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.

How could we let this happen?

There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.

The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.

Are you enjoying your baby? #timetotalk

Are you enjoying your baby?

How often do new mums hear that questions asked?
How often do we smile, through a lump in the throat and blinking away tears, and whimper “yes”, when we really mean “no”?

This week in the Church calendar we celebrated Candlemas: the moment when Mary took Jesus to the temple, 40 days after his birth, for her purification. And tomorrow is Time to Talk day, when we are encouraged to talk about mental health issues and end the stigma that surrounds them.

New mums know something about mental health. Mary would have been no different.

Forty days post-birth is significant: forty days is just shy of six weeks, and six weeks is the magic number.

At six weeks a mum’s body should be healing well after the trauma of birth.
She will see a doctor to be checked over and told she’s doing well.
She will start to feel reassured that her baby is gaining weight.
The baby might be starting to sleep for longer than an hour or two.
Feeding should be getting easier.
The baby has probably started to smile.
The shock of birth is wearing off, and life might be returning to normal.
And by six weeks a new mum is probably feeling more confident and less hormonal.

But sometimes, some of this stuff doesn’t happen. First time round and it wasn’t like this for us.

Our baby didn’t sleep unless we were holding him.
His screaming meant we had to sleep in shifts, and 3 hours of broken sleep was a good night.
He wasn’t gaining weight like he should have been.
Feeding was definitely not going well.
I was carrying the terrifying burden of caring for such a vulnerable and tiny person.
We were crumbling under the pressure.

By ten weeks things had improved, but it took me longer to recover from the emotional strain and the exhaustion.

I wonder how it was for Mary as she arrived at the temple six weeks after giving birth?
Was her baby sleeping well?
Was he thriving and gaining weight?
Were Mary’s nipples cracked and sore, or had breastfeeding been easy?
Had she healed well after the birth?
Was she riddled with anxiety, or playing it cool?
Was she obsessed with protecting this fragile baby with a fierce love that burned in every ounce of her being?

Bellini’s painting of the Presentation at the Temple is deeply moving. Luke’s Gospel doesn’t tell us much about how this young girl felt as she took on the task of caring for this baby. How much did this vulnerable, sleep deprived girl sweat or hold back tears as she handed her baby over to Simeon? How much did her heart plummet as Simeon spoke of a piercing sword? Luke says she was amazed. How much did her amazement overwhelm her? Thrill her? Frighten her?

Bellini_maria1

Bellini tells us what Luke does not. Here is young courageous Mary, flanked by women, hesitating as she passes her tiny bundle to Simeon. What is that hesitation? Is Mary beginning to understand the fullness of her vocation and the pain that it will cause her? Is she, like any new mother, finding it hard to trust a stranger with the wellbeing of her child, even for a moment?

Bellini paints the vulnerability and courage of every new mother. Revisiting the Candlemas narrative seems to be a good place to think about motherhood and mental health. The dangerous cocktail of major life change, anxiety and sleeplessness is enough to damage the mental health of any previously well person. It’s not easy to admit to struggling after having a baby. It’s almost impossible to say that you’re not “enjoying your baby”, because all your energy is going into just coping.

I hope that Mary had time to enjoy her baby. It wasn’t going to get easier for her, and there is endless comfort to be found in Mary’s story for any struggling mum. For the rest of us, it usually does get better. Or, at least, we become experts at dealing with our children at the stage they are in. New stages will always bring new challenges… and new opportunities for growth.

Graham Kendrick’s Thorns in the Straw is not an easy listen, but for me, it captures Mary’s bravery and commitment to her calling. If you click on the link you can watch Graham perform the song.

Since the day the angel came
It seemed that everything had changed
The only certain thing
Was the child that moved within
On the road that would not end
Winding down to Bethlehem
So far away from home.

Just a blanket on the floor
Of a vacant cattle-stall
But there the child was born
She held him in her arms
And as she laid him down to sleep
She wondered – will it always be
So bitter and so sweet.

And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky. 

Then the words of ancient seers
Tumbled down the centuries:
A virgin shall conceive,
God with us, Prince of Peace
Man of Sorrows – strangest name
Oh Joseph there it comes again
So bitter yet so sweet.

And as she watched him through the years
Her joy was mingled with her tears
And she’d feel it all again
The glory, and the shame
And when the miracles began
She wondered, who is this man
And where will this all end?

‘Til against a darkening sky
The son she loved was lifted high
And with his dying breath
She heard him say ‘Father forgive’
And to the criminal beside
“Today-with me in Paradise”
So bitter yet so sweet.