26 Mar 2016

Holy Saturday: feeling His absence; yearning for His presence - Jericho Tree

From Jericho Tree - Anyone visiting a church or chapel this Holy Saturday will meet the shock of an open and empty tabernacle, and an extinguished sanctuary lamp. We all know it’s coming, but each year it’s upsetting to see, as we halt mid-genuflection and realise, ‘He’s not here’.

The absence of one whose presence we love – how painful this can be. Those who are bereaved know moments like this – suddenly realising that your mother won’t be at the Christmas table, or struggling through the birthday of your deceased child – these moments produce the sharpest grief. And in conjunction with the sudden awareness of absence, we find ourselves yearning for the presence we’re missing.

A well-loved contemporary song, Let Her Go, by Passenger, puts its finger on this phenomenon:
Well you only need the light when it’s burning low,
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow,
Only know you love her when you let her go.
Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low,
Only hate the road when you’re missing home,
Only know you love her when you let her go.
We take Jesus’ presence for granted so often, but when it is taken from our tabernacles, in commemoration of his time in the tomb, we feel his absence keenly.

In the spiritual life, many great saints experience times of desolation which are understood as invitations to greater faith and detachment. This experience is sometimes called the ‘dark night of the soul’. In a sense, the period from Good Friday to the Easter Vigil is the ecclesial equivalent, a time for all of us to fumble in the darkness and yearn for light. But, besides being an opportunity to exercise our faith, what use does it serve?

At a time when many of our contemporaries are living their lives without reference to the divine, I think Holy Saturday is a time for us to draw close to those who feel God’s absence. I don’t know what it’s like to live as if God doesn’t exist, but there must be times in any atheist’s life when he or she yearns for the divine. The poet, Dennis O’Driscoll, expresses precisely this sentiment in his poem, Missing God:
[…] though we rebelled against Him
like adolescents, uplifted to see
an oppressive father banished –
a bearded hermit – to the desert,
we confess to missing Him at times.

Miss Him during the civil wedding
when, at the blossomy altar
of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain
to be fed a line containing words
like ‘everlasting’ and ‘divine’.

Miss Him when the TV scientist
explains the cosmos through equations,
leaving our planet to revolve on its axis
aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.

Miss Him when the radio catches a snatch
of plainchant from some echoey priory;
when the gospel choir raises its collective voice
to ask Shall We Gather at the River?
or the forces of the oratorio converge
on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
and our contracted hearts lose a beat.
The poem continues, multiplying occasions when God is ‘missed’. As I said, I don’t know what it’s like to live as an atheist, but I do know what it’s like to feel the absence of the Lord – the whole Church does, each year on Holy Saturday. But if we live this day in solidarity with our secular contemporaries, we live it differently from them too, since we do not live this absence without hope for the return of the yearned-for presence. So on Holy Saturday we keep our eyes on the empty tabernacle, we miss Him, and we wait hopefully for his returning presence, trusting in His words:
‘A little while, and you will see me no more, again a little while, and you will see me’ (Jn 16:16).

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