My family was stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines (a heavily Catholic country) for two years in the mid-1970s. Each year as Easter approached the local television stations would air brief public service announcements reminding people what day of Holy Week it was. Today is Black Saturday the announcer would say as the screen showed a black and white drawing of (if memory serves) a hillside with a boulder blocking a cave, and a cross in the background. I was nine at the time, and this announcement always gave me the shivers. It would probably give me the shivers now, actually.
The designation of the day before Easter Sunday as "Black Saturday" appears to be a tradition within Filipino Catholicism, and various folk practices accompany it. In the morning, children leap into the air as church bells ring in hopes of growing tall. The Spanish custom of not bathing on Good Friday is widely observed, so many bathe in rivers and in the ocean on Black Saturday. During the night, dummies of Judas stuffed with firecrackers are exploded in church plazas, a tradition reminiscent of Guy Fawkes'Day in the U.K. Children are woken before midnight Mass and fed meat dishes (meat being forbidden on Good Friday) lest they become deaf.
By the way, I have to say right now that "The Exploding Judases" would make an excellent band name.
I always wonder on this day what it was like for Jesus' followers. A couple of days ago things were going great. Jesus was in the thick of things, confronting the unjust and hypocritical, stirring up the crowds in the Holy City itself. It was probably the most exciting time to be a disciple of this man since the beginning of his ministry. Then Thursday night he was suddenly arrested and dragged away. Those few who remained and followed after him heard bits and pieces of his many trials, the furious accusations, the beatings, Jesus' maddening refusal to say anything that might set him free. Then Friday morning, Jesus is put into the hands of the Romans. He is tortured to death and buried.
I have not had a close friend or family member die on me yet. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was eight, too young to really understand what had happened. I've felt grief and loss, though, so I have an inkling of what it might have been like for his friends, his students, his family. One day, he was there. The next, he was in the ground. At the end of the day the sun went down the way it did every other day, heedless of the tragedy that had occurred. They ate, they slept, they got up, and maybe for a brief moment they didn't remember he was gone; they looked over at the space where he always slept expecting him to be there, and it was empty. The gospels say that his followers rested on the Sabbath as obedient Jews should. On any other day they might have done something to take their minds off their loss, but today they could do nothing. They might have sat together in their rented room, silent, each wrapped in his own dark thoughts. Sometimes the silence would be broken by the sound of someone crying.
The hours passed. There were things to think about and duties to be performed. Tomorrow, they would have said bleakly, someone has to go to the tomb and prepare his body. Who'll go? Mary Magdalene volunteered. She's the only one named in all four gospels as one of those who went to the tomb on Easter morning. Her strength must have been something to see. Maybe she was the one who kept everyone going when all they wanted to do was lie down and die, and so she was specially remembered.
Night fell over Jerusalem. There was talk in the street about the criminal Jesus, the blasphemer who claimed to be the Son of God and was executed. Also talk about how his followers were still in the city and it was only a matter of time before they got what was coming to them. There was no future for them, no hope. At any moment the authorities could be pounding on the door.
Depression makes you exhausted. Maybe they slept like rocks tonight. Or maybe they slept fitfully, bone-weary but starting awake at every sound outside.
I think about these things on this day. They were followers of Jesus, y'see, and I'm a follower of Jesus too. Tonight, two thousand years ago, my master, my friend, my teacher and savior is dead in a cave, cold, his corpse growing stiff. Easter morning is only a few hours away, but tonight it seems like it will never come.
But the great joke is that it does. There's a surprise in store for all of us, an amazing plan that has already gone off just the way it was meant to. We still think all's been lost but the truth is that what we believed to be total defeat was really victory.
God has a weird sense of humor sometimes. You gotta love him for it.