"The most tragic thing about man is not that we die,
but it is that which dies within us while we yet live." -Albert Schweitzer
Peter, John and the other disciples of Jesus experienced the longest Saturday in history, the day after the Crucifixion. That week, on Friday, "Good" Friday, they lost everything they had lived for. "Good" is not what what they were likely feeling; not at all. Their hopes were not just wounded, they were annihilated; their dreams not merely shattered, but utterly stripped. God only knows how much torment filled the souls of the eleven on that long Saturday. The questions. The anguish. The confusion. The fear.
Hope is never more needed than on the Saturdays we face. Something has gone. Something has left us. Something has died. Something or someone that once filled a great place within has left us just as empty as we were once full, just as lonely as we were once befriended, just as uncertain as we once were so sure.
A Death to Face
Maggie, an eighth grade Spanish teacher in the western North Carolina mountains, faced a long Saturday herself two decades into her marriage. She described it in Newsweek Magazine this way: "When my husband of 20 years and I separated, people called, wrote letters, came visiting. Some promised, 'You'll marry again soon and next time your marriage will last.' Others said, 'You're better off single.' Almost everyone encouraged me, 'Go for it!'
Eighteen months later, when Maggie and her husband decided to give their marriage a second shot, support was limited at best and often non-existent. Maggie recalls what people said: "'I heard you two are back together,' said one caller. 'I hope... it isn't true.' Another asked: 'Are you sure you want to risk going through this again?' 'When something is dead,' a minister told me, 'you need to bury it.'"
Such words of counsel seem a bit stark and harsh when addressing something as significant as a twenty-year-long marriage. However, no doubt Maggie's array of advisers had watched her on some of her darkest days. They had seen the anguish and disillusionment on her face when she had discussed her marriage. They heard her grappling for hope. They saw the tears. Watching her heart fighting to navigate the hurts and hurdles of it all was difficult. Somehow the thoughts of just being rid of the struggle seemed a lesser burden to bear. Why, it only made sense, right?
Beyond the Doctrine
Jesus turned the Kingdom of Common Sense on its head in more ways than one. Just think of it: To blood-thirsty zealots he insisted "love your enemy" and "bless those who persecute you." To his often-vengeful disciples he upped the tally for required acts of forgiveness from seven to "seventy times seven". And to a young bereaved sister named Martha, whose beloved brother Lazarus (a close friend of Jesus') had just died, he made it clear that the Resurrection was more than simply a coming prophetic event.
"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" -John 11:21-26
Into the face of Martha's grief, Jesus came that day. He walked right into her conflict. Her soul was not only wracked by the loss of Lazarus, it was bewildered over the question of why, why hadn't he just come earlier. Why had he waited this long? Surely he could have saved her brother. Martha was struggling with the same thing you and I often struggle with, a nagging if -- "if you had been here, my brother would not have died (v. 21)."
Things just had not panned out the way Martha had expected or imagined. If any present hope was anywhere in sight she could not detect it, she could not see it. When our hopes have fallen flat and what we expected has not panned out, where do we turn? How could a heart once so full of hope and now so disappointed find ever hope again?
To Martha's stated dilemma Jesus brought hope in the form of five short words -- "Your brother will rise again" (v. 23). He didn't say how? He didn't say why? He didn't even say when? But he did, however, bring her a promise and an emphatic one at that.
Interestingly, Martha automatically assumed that Jesus was speaking in the not-to-be-experienced-yet prophetic sense. She offered mental assent to the belief in a doctrine, one painted on the distant horizons of her hopes - the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. An important doctrine, for sure, but certainly not one that would make any difference in the overwhelming Saturday she was now facing, not in her mind at least.
Martha answered, "I know he [Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." In other words, I know what all our doctrines are. I have studied them well. I know that I have the hope of someday seeing my brother again in heaven, in the "sweet by and by." It is as if Martha feels for a moment that Jesus is giving her the last thing anyone probably wants at a moment of deep distress -- a Sunday School doctrinal review.
What Martha did not realize, however, is that not only would there one day be a Resurrection, she was at that moment standing directly in front of Resurrection itself, Resurrection incarnate. Resurrection was standing right in front of her, and she almost missed it. All of the power to resurrect, to bring back to life, to transform and to make new were in the hands of the one with whom she was at that moment conversing. The dark valley of the shadow of death she had entered just four days earlier was about to be visited by the only person on the planet that possessed a power greater than death. All that was required, Jesus said, was that she "believe".
The resurrection power resident within Jesus, the great I AM, preceded the empty tomb and it would go beyond it. Whenever Jesus came on the scene, resurrections occurred. Dead things came back to life. Blind eyes suddenly could see. Deaf ears could hear. Tax collectors offered refunds. Prostitutes could pray. Lame men stood up and walked. And, oh yes, dead men lived. Every moment was infused with Resurrection power and potential. All the laws governing the Kingdom of Common Sense were up for grabs for a higher Kingdom and Power was present and at work.
Beyond the Grave
Succeeding at giving her marriage another shot was something that few people in Maggie's life had any hope for. Deep into the "Saturday" of her separation, she found herself caught amidst a mixture of conflicting thoughts and emotions. The day her husband came back into her life, she was contemplating the "freedom" she was about to experience, the trips she would take and the projects she could undertake. The divorce papers were expected to arrive any day and she was becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of being single again.
While sweeping up cat litter in the basement, Maggie heard a familiar sound as a car pulled up in the driveway. Without a word, her husband slowly entered the basement and invaded the silence as he walked over and gently hugged his wife. He came this time not with papers, but with a question: "Could we try again?"
In a millisecond all kinds of questions flooded Maggie's mind: Should she toss two decades of marriage in the trash along with the cat litter? Or should they give it another go? Did she want to have to answer to someone else again? Did she want all the cooking and laundry that went with it? The meals? The sharing? What about the complaints she would hear about her shortcomings? And yet, what about the good times they had known together before everything went south?
Maggie was not so sure. Yes, for better or for worse, vows had been made. She had made a promise. She wondered about the kids, however. Wouldn't they be better off with both parents at home? Still, that seemed a lame excuse for moving back in together. As she walked the valley of decision, Maggie's hopes were paper-thin. Still she felt more positive about the idea of giving it a try again together than going it alone. Honestly, she felt the risk of either decision. Reenter the marriage and it might blow up in her face; Leave it and she might regret having given up so soon.
Hope is the radar system that alone can detect a resurrection. When our eyes can see nothing but what we've lost, hope is the inner prompting that something else is drawing near. Something bright. Something new. Something different than we have ever known before or perhaps expected.
And how did Maggie's long Saturday end? She describes it this way:
Our separation taught us a little about what is and what isn't important. Forgiveness, we've learned, is essential. And we've avoided (at least so far) the anger and bitterness that can come from divorce. Our marriage is far from perfect ... But the marriage is better than it was before. . We walk nearly every day, eat out more frequently, talk more. Both of us have learned to pay more attention to each other than we did in the past. The minister wasn't wrong. At the time I talked to him the marriage was dead. But hasn't he heard about resurrection?
What propelled a struggling wife named Maggie to give it another shot? What pushed her over the edge and gave her the courage to do something difficult? It doesn't sound like it came from the words of many of her friends nor even her minister, but because of this: Amidst all of her struggles she did not forget to remember. She remembered that there is another option after something dies other than burial. There is the hope of new life because of the Resurrection.
Read Robert Crosby's newest book, The One Jesus Loves (Thomas Nelson Publishers/HarperCollins).