Holy Saturday, the Economy, the Church, & Mansur al-Hallaj

Now let me see, have I forgotten anything!? Maybe, but it doesn’t look like it. Ok, this is a kind of “blog stew” where I throw in all kinds of stuff and with a bit of “cooking” it may stick together and be tasty! Actually I was going to deal with all these topics separately under the heading of “New Notes,” but then I found them kind of sticking together. So, here goes.

Perhaps it is odd to reflect on Holy Saturday so long after it has passed; perhaps it is not so odd. From a religious and liturgical standpoint, it is a peculiar day—there is absolute stillness, nothing happens. Speaking only of my own Catholic tradition, I think here we have it just right: there is no service of any kind on Holy Saturday—the only day of the year so designated. If anyone has some service on Holy Saturday, I think they are missing the point here. Sure, many parishes have the Easter Vigil usually late Saturday evening, but that is ok because traditionally, liturgically, the next day begins at sundown. So at sundown Holy Saturday is over and the Easter Vigil can begin. But on Holy Saturday Jesus is “buried in the tomb,” and the Church must remain silent. In a sense it cannot even “be” church; but it waits for that Awakening.

On Holy Saturday, in our society, it’s business as usual—with a certain Easter flourish. Easter bunnies, flowers, chocolate eggs, and all kinds of bright things abound. Such is the nature of our reflection on the Great Mystery of the Resurrection. There is a façade of unreality smacked on top of the deep unreality of what our lives are all about: being “happy consumers,” “happy church-goers.” Yes, the two seem to go together unfortunately. The underlying message in too many churches is that you can be a happy consumer because when you die that’s not the end because Christ is risen. Sounds crude and perhaps unfair and certainly never explicitly put that way. But even at best the Resurrection seems nothing more than an “overlay” on our otherwise secular activities. The central mystery of Christianity seems nothing more than an “addition” to our regular lives, which are somehow enhanced by this “Easter celebration.”

Our phenomenal, historical, samsaric existence goes on as on any Saturday. Human beings buy and sell, make love, raise children, engage in war, wash the car, do the dishes, read a book, feel pain and joy, etc. But liturgically the Church has come to a still point, a great quiet, an empty space. And as our Taoist friends would put it, it is the empty space that renders this whole structure valuable and meaningful. But how and why? Incidentally, the monk-hermit is a living icon of Holy Saturday—he/she is the “empty space” within the life of the church and the community. Everyone wants him/her to contribute to that community life, but in his “not being there,” the contribution is of greater dimensions.

Now there is a special twist to all this which makes it even more difficult to grasp. Holy Saturday is not an isolated entity. It is an integral part of the Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Easter Vigil. It is rightly said that this is truly only ONE celebration, one contemplation of ONE great mystery in several different modes. The Mystery of the Resurrection already begins and is made manifest on Holy Thursday in the washing of the feet and the breaking of the bread. The Mystery of the Resurrection is already present and manifest on the Cross on Good Friday—this takes some spiritual insight to even begin to sense. And of course the Mystery of the Resurrection explodes into full manifestation at the Easter Vigil. So what happened to Holy Saturday? That “empty space,” that “tomb,” that supreme quiet, is also a manifestation of the Mystery of the Resurrection. But note another anomaly—we did say TRIduum, meaning “3”—but here we have seemingly 4 parts. Again, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are relatively clear in their importance—so what happens to Holy Saturday—it seems like the human appendix in our body, something unnecessarily there and can be done without, tossed away without any real loss. Ah, quite the contrary. The other three great moments gather around this “empty quiet space,” and they manifest their great message within this “quiet, empty space.” Beyond that I can say no more.

Now we shift gears. Jesus said that where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there I am. Indeed. This is true ecclesially, liturgically and existentially. The meaning of Church is to gather in the name of the Risen Christ, who is now beyond all boundaries, all designations, all titles, all concepts, etc. The Chuch’s meaning and mission becomes manifest in every true gathering in that Name. This is the role of the liturgy. On Holy Thursday begins the Triduum, and the liturgy there focuses on the washing of the feet and the breaking of the bread. It is truly good that the new pope washed the feet of Moslems and women—the reasons for this are obvious and we need not rehash the history. One only hopes that there is more than these symbolic actions that will take place. In any case, the “washing of the feet” is one profound symbolic action(but not the only one) of the meaning of “church”, the faith community. In a sense this ritual, symbolic action manifests at least one dimension of the “church.” To illumine the full significance of this let us turn to Islam, and at its heart is this thing called “perfect servanthood.” This is what every pious Moslem aims at, and of course the Sufi mystics pushed this to its deepest level, and among the greatest of them, Mansur al-Hallaj, we reach an unspeakable depth. Al-Hallaj said that in perfect servanthood “God becomes my ‘I’.” In perfect servanthood we transcend our superficial ego-self, and God becomes manifest in our very being—our very person becomes like the Burning Bush that Moses witnessed. One of the Desert Fathers said, “Why not become all fire?” Al-Hallaj died crucified and mutilated because of his alleged blasphemy in which he claimed an unspeakable intimacy with God. Sounds familiar? When he was on the cross, he proclaimed “I am the Truth,” or sometimes translated as “I am Reality.” It was no longer the little ego of a Persian itinerant religious teacher who was speaking but the Ultimate Reality which we call God who was one with al-Hallaj in his perfect servanthood.

Now the Church has an institutional ego—no matter who you are, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, non-denominational, small, large, whatever. In fact all religious bodies have this institutional ego, and on Holy Thursday this ego is invited to a self-transcendence, indeed a real death, if you will, to manifest “perfect servanthood,” and so then to truly manifest the Ultimate Reality of God. This will take a lot more than pious words about “loving the poor,” etc. Does any Church dare let go of its institutional ego? Does any Church or any religious body dare even to admit that it has one?

Consider this example. You might recall the Michael Moore film about our economy. A very provocative indictment of where our priorities have been and are. At one point in the movie there is a scene in which Moore wraps that yellow police tape around the New York Stock Exchange—it is a “crime scene”!! That’s a funny scene but also very telling and in fact in keeping with some of the prophets of the Old Testament. So many people have been hurt by the financial manipulations of the big financial institutions. Now I was thinking, if only that had been a bishop wrapping that tape around the New York Stock Exchange, several bishops, calling it not only a “crime scene,” but a “den of thieves.” They could have invited ministers and priests, rabbis and Imams, to join them. What a powerful scene that would have been! “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I will be.” Yeah, there would have been consequences, name-calling, criticism, threats, etc. But it would have been a small step toward “perfect servanthood”—certainly more so than any liturgical gestures. But I think it is the preservation of the institutional ego that keeps them from things like that. And it keeps them also from things much deeper. The main function of the Church is not to point to itself, even as it is the “Body of Christ,” but to point to that Awakening within the human heart of every person regardless who they are, that Awakening in to their identity in the Risen Christ even as this may go beyond all church formulations that we can recognize. But this “pointing” can only happen as the Church discovers and unfolds into “perfect servanthood” existentially and not just symbolically, and this can only unfold as the Church enters its own Holy Saturday within which it surrenders to the silence and the “empty space” of the Mystery. And we conclude with our hermit-monk who in his/her solitude incarnates the “vacancy” of Holy Saturday and so journeys into a very real “perfect servanthood,” which is his gift to all of humanity, not only the Church.

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