Submersion

I do not create things on Holy Saturday. This is the day between Good Friday and Easter, and I sit still. Or I do laundry, or mop the kitchen floor. But I do not create.

Several years ago, I found myself baptizing a new friend in my living room on Holy Saturday. This is an excerpt from the book I’ve been writing for the past several years, wherein that story is told.

We are gathered for a baptism on the day that sits between the death of Jesus on Good Friday and the resurrection on Easter Sunday in my New York City apartment living room. Everything is crowded.  Ingrid has brought two friends. This day is significant, I explain to them, as we sit together. We are gathered on a day that is very traditional for baptisms in Christianity: Holy Saturday. It is a day of liturgical silence, nuzzled in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, a day defined by its in-between-ness. 

As I talk, I am remembering two years earlier, when I was only weeks from moving to New York City. I had driven to a church where a dear friend was the priest for morning prayer. Between getting our house on the market, finishing out the semester as a professor, and preparing to start new work in a very new (and rather harsh) city, my spirit was in a constant state of trembling. The liminal unknowing of Holy Saturday had been stretching over months for me, and this was the one day of the church year that recognized the silent trembling of my internal world. I needed to go to church to be held together.

I sat in the nearly empty, sunlit sanctuary in the suburbs of DC, waiting for my friend to start the service for the handful of us gathered there, waiting to be reminded that I was not alone, that even on Holy Saturday, the emptiness is not real. But then I opened the Book of Common Prayer to the service for the day. I felt stunned to read the first words of the morning service: There is no celebration of Eucharist on this day. The morning prayer of Holy Saturday begins with an instruction on what does not happen. We do not break bread together. Holy Saturday is a day of absence.

Eucharist. For Christians this refers to the Christian ritual of eating bread and wine, but it is a word that, at its root, means giving thanks. On Holy Saturday, then, we do not give thanks. I can appreciate that: we cannot and should not give thanks for trauma, which is what Jesus’ death was to his followers. We do not give thanks because there is no escape hatch for this day. We are stuck in it. That morning, the service was remarkably short and we did not, as the book says, share bread and wine. We read some scriptures, we said a prayer, and then were sent back into the world to wait, to tremble. 

It is telling, and not surprising, that many forms of Protestant Christianity have done away with Holy Saturday altogether (and, sometimes, Good Friday as well), choosing only to ritually recognize the resurrection. It is the American way, to want to skip over the loss and just get to the happy ending, to turn religion into the Disneyworld of the spiritual life, to pretend we can will ourselves into a world where there is no doubt or unknowing or unthinkable loss, only resurrection, joy, harmony. But there is no resurrection without the silent terror of Holy Saturday, a day that recognizes time that Jesus spent in hell while his disciples wrestled with the apparent truth that all they had loved was a lie. I hate the truth of Holy Saturday more than nearly anything else in this world, but I recognize it as truth: death is a necessary part of life, destruction a necessary part of creation. 

Did I know, two years ago, that I was only months away from starting a divorce, after fifteen years of marriage? No. I had no idea. At last finished with graduate school and on my way to a promising new job, I thought I was finished with dying. My spirit knew, perhaps, and my body, with its constant insomnia, but in my mind I had no idea. Did I know how terribly unhappy I was going to be in New York City during those first few years? I had some suspicion, but I shoved it to the side, forced it into silence. My conscious mind could not even consider the loss that I was about to endure. All I knew was that I needed something in life to feel good again; some words that brought comfort instead of terror. So I went to church early on Holy Saturday hoping to hear something that would feel good. Instead, I heard that the church is silent on this day, that we do not give thanks for Holy Saturday.

But the day portion of Holy Saturday is set apart from the night. For when the sun sets on Holy Saturday, churches all over the world gather outside the sanctuary and light a fire to begin the  the Easter Vigil, the longest service of the year. It is during this service that new converts (or babies, depending on one’s tradition) are baptized. This is the long river of tradition that this living room baptism will be swept along with, and I have always found the Easter Vigil to be remarkably, and wonderfully, primal. Congregants huddle around the Paschal fire – a great flame lit on the church steps – as the darkness  descends over the world. They call out to the saints who have gone before to be present here, now, in the evening-before-morning. It is a death-defying liturgical space, insisting on light in the darkness, yet it also feels wildly unstable: I have gathered around the Paschal flame in rain, sleet, and cool spring breezes. In an era in which “church” is often equated with large stone building impervious to the elements, the Easter Vigil is so very not. We are subject to dark and cold, and it is in those conditions that we gather to light a fire, out here in the world. And we baptize, dunking people into holy water, so that they may emerge into a new life that is both a gift and a choice.

My living room is not nearly as dramatic or primal, but our insistence on claiming whatever space we can as sacred feels very much in line with churches who light their paschal fires on city streets, insisting that the world around us is a site of constant transformation. I am sitting with women who have suffered and survived together. The mutuality and vulnerability that is the foundation of their friendship is clear to me, as they take turns telling stories, describing the ways their spirits have been nourished and grown over the last several weeks in the wake of Jack’s death. The mutuality and vulnerability is more like what I have always dreamed a church could be than what church ever has been. This community is more than enough to be the context for a baptism. My instincts had been trustworthy.

We take turns sharing what has brought us all to this moment, to this sharing of a ritual moment. One of the women describes how she has come to understand God in the wake of the loss of her child. The other describes her own childhood experiences of church and how she always felt like an outsider. Finally it is Ingrid’s turn, and she describes the moment, decades ago, when she had to make a decision to pursue sobriety. “I had to make the choice to live,” she says, choking up. “And now I am making that choice all over again.”

Yes, she is making that choice. So am I, as I pour water from our makeshift baptismal font over her head, as I seal her forehead with our homemade holy oil, in this tiny one-bedroom apartment amidst the pre-war buildings of uptown Manhattan. This is a holy space. If we must stand in Holy Saturday, if we are forced to exist on the days that lie between between death and resurrection, we can still make this one choice, this terrifying choice to live. It is the only antidote to Holy Saturday that I know: to light the primal Paschal fire even as the world is going dark. 

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