Holy Saturday

(originally posted in 2010)

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

– Reinhold Niebuhr

This is my favorite day in Holy Week, this Saturday, this unrestful Sabbath, my favorite day in the whole of the liturgical calendar.

Well, actually, “favorite” is the wrong word. It’s not that I like this day so much as that I understand it. It’s recognizable, familiar, lived-in.

This day, the Saturday that can’t know if there will ever be a Sunday, is the day we live in, you and I, today and every day for the whole of our lives. This is all we are given to know.

Easter Sunday? That’s tomorrow, the day after today. We’ll never get there in time. We can believe in Easter Sunday, but we can’t be sure. We can’t know for sure. We can’t know until we’re out of time.

Here, in time, there’s just this day, this dreadful Saturday of not knowing.

There are some things we can know on this Saturday. Jesus is dead, to begin with, dead and buried. He said the world was upside-down and needed a revolution to turn it right-way-round and so he was executed for disturbing the peace. He came and said love was greater than power, and so power killed him.

And now it’s Saturday and Jesus is dead and we’re all going to die and everything I’ve told you about him turns out to be in vain and everything I’ve staked my life on turns out to be in vain. Our faith is futile and we’re still hopeless in our sins. Jesus is dead and we are of all people most to be pitied.

That last paragraph is a paraphrase from St. Paul. What he actually says there, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, is “if …” What he says, specifically, is:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead …

But that’s Sunday language and Sunday certainty and it doesn’t make much sense here on Saturday. Here on Saturday, we can hope it’s true and we may even try to believe it’s true, but we can’t know “in fact” one way or another. Not now. Not on Saturday.

And to be honest, it doesn’t seem terribly likely, because Saturday, this Saturday, is all we’ve ever known. Yesterday was this same Saturday, and so was the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that.

Why should we expect that tomorrow will be any different?

Seriously, just look around. Does it look like the meek are inheriting the earth? Does it look like those who hunger and thirst for justice are being filled? Does it look like the merciful are being shown mercy?

Jesus was meek and merciful and hungry for justice and look where that got him. They killed him. We killed him. Power won.

That’s what this everyday Saturday shows us — power always wins. “If you want a picture of the future,” George Orwell wrote, “imagine a boot stomping on a human face — forever.”

“But in fact,” St. Paul says, everything changes on Sunday. Come Sunday power loses. Come Sunday, love wins, the meek shall inherit, the merciful will receive mercy and no one will ever go hungry for justice again. Come Sunday, everything changes.

If there ever is a Sunday.

And but so, this is why we hope for Sunday and why we live for the hope of Sunday. Even though we can’t know for sure that Sunday will ever come and even if Saturday is all we ever get to see.

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  • Fred, this is one of my favorite posts of yours, and I’ve been waiting for this to go up so I could repost it to Facebook. Thanks. :D

  • ReverendRef

    Yep . . . one of his Top Five posts.

    For those of you interested, there’s a wonderful rendition of the Holy Friday Lamentations done in English (I know it says Holy Friday, but it’s applicable for today). It’s up on my blog:


    Prayers and Blessings on this day where we stand in the gap.

  • Wednesday

    I was looking forward to this post this year. Thank you.

    (Also, hooray, I can actually see comments now! Yay!)

  • SisterCoyote

    I forgot this post was coming; I’m glad it did, though. I really needed this.

  • Jurgan

    One of my favorites, as well. I read this at Easter a couple years back, and it was the last Easter with my grand-mother. This is very special.

  • abi

    This is beautiful, and exactly right. Thank you.

  • arcseconds

    Well, it’s Sunday now for me, so I hope I’m not detracting from the somewhat pessimistic Saturday view.

    It is sometimes good to remember that the arc of the universe (locally at least) really has been empirically bending towards justice, and there are rational(ist) reasons for thinking that it ought to do just that, and will continue in the future.

    It’s 3 steps forwards two backwards, but 150 years ago a major western nation still had significant investment in slavery as an economic force. 100 years ago and it was all but impossible (save in highly exceptional circumstances) for a woman to have a profession outside nursing and clerical work, 50 years ago it was still extremely difficult, now it’s normal in developed nations and quite common in developing nations. 66 years ago Britain still ruled a country with 3 times its population. 40 years ago and homosexuality was still considered a psychological disorder and same-sex sex was illegal in many places. Now it’s not only not considered a mental illness by virtually all professionals (a small number of quacks notwithstanding) and is quite legal, it’s widely accepted and even celebrated. 20 years ago same-sex relationships had few, if any, rights anywhere. Now in many places same sex relationships have all or almost all the rights as heterosexual couples, and it’s only a matter of time (probably a short amount of time) before all developed nations follow suit.

    Yes, sure, there are still many problems in all of these areas, but it’s massive, massive progress in a fairly short span of time.

  • fuschiagroan

    .One of my very favorite Slacktivist posts. I’ve looked forward to reading it, and sharing it, for the past few years. Thanks for this, Fred

  • Nick Gotts

    Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime – Reinhold Niebuhr

    Discovery of the etiology of infection?
    Publication of On the Origin of Species?
    Defeat of Nazi Germany?
    Discovery of the Higgs boson?
    Clinical elimination of smallpox?
    Introduction of one person one vote in South Africa?

    Nah. Obviously, none of those things were worth doing, because Reinhold Niebuhr says so.

  • Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.
    Loving other people, helping other people, witnessing the beauty of nature, creating something new…no, this quote does not make complete sense.

  • Wednesday

    I suspect Niebuhr is using “completed” and “completely” to avoid those objections. Eg, “yeah, we defeated Nazi Germany, but we didn’t end all genocide and all dictatorships, so we’re not actually done yet. We found the Higgs boson but we don’t completely understand the universe, so we’re not done yet.”

    On the other hand, I could be ascribing too much cleverness to him because his name makes me think of Reinhard from Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

  • Nick Gotts

    That would make it a deepity: a faux-profound saying with one true-but-trivial meaning, and one false-or-meaningless-but-would-be-deeply-significant-if-true one.

  • It often intrigues me how people interpret that quote.

    If I say “I can’t complete a task that takes 300 years in my lifetime,” I suspect most people would not respond “Sure you can! Just be born after the task is mostly done.” Rather, they would understand me to be saying that I can’t perform the entire task in one lifetime.

    I interpret Niebuhr the same way.

    Yes, everything that gets done is done in someone’s lifetime, and some of those things are worth doing. That’s obviously true.

    But equally true is that the worthwhile things we do build on an infrastructure that was started by the generations that came before us, and to say of those things “I did this, just me, all by myself!” without acknowledging my dependence on that infrastructure can be problematic.

  • Nick Gotts

    I don’t think your interpretation of

    Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;

    can stand, because under that interpretation, the immediately following:

    therefore, we are saved by hope.

    makes no sense. Some of those worthwhile things will be finished in any sufficiently long lifetime, so we don’t need to rely on hope to feel, justifiably, that we have contributed to the completion of something worthwhile – if, indeed, we have done so.

  • Wednesday

    Mmm, maybe.

    Apologies, I tend to be wary and skeptical of applying concepts from RationalWiki because of the overlap between that community and the “the Singularity will happen because I don’t know what a convergent series is” community.

  • That either assumes that worthwhile things are only HUGE things, or it changes the meaning of the word “complete.”

  • Amaryllis

    “The Answer”

    Not darkness but twilight
    In which even the best
    of minds must make its way
    now. And slowly the questions
    occur, vague but formidable
    for all that. We pass our hands
    over their surface like blind
    men feeling for the mechanism
    that will swing them aside. They
    yield, but only to re-form
    as new problems; and one
    does not even do that
    but towers immovable
    before us.

    Is there no way
    other than thought of answering
    its challenge? There is an anticipation
    of it to the point of
    dying. There have been times
    when, after long on my knees
    in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
    from my mind, and I have looked
    in and seen the old questions lie
    folded and in a place
    by themselves, like the piled
    graveclothes of love’s risen body.

    – R. S. Thomas

    Happy Easter, all.

  • Nick Gotts

    I wasn’t aware of that overlap (I don’t generally use RationalWiki), but “deepity” comes via Daniel Dennett from the unnamed (AFAIK) daughter of a friend of his. Here he is explaining the term.

  • I’m not really sure what you mean by “HUGE” or “complete”, so I can’t really speak to that.

    I can say that all the worthwhile things I’ve done depended in some way on the actions of others who came before me.

    Whether that’s true of everyone else is not my place to say.

  • Well, it makes sense to me.

    When I do my piece to progress a project whose completion and meaning depend on a context much larger than I can fully understand, involving and affecting many more people than just me and involving time frames larger than my lifetime, faith and hope and love are an important part of my motivational structure.

    I’m perfectly willing to accept that it isn’t like that for other people, though.

  • There are plenty of worthwhile things that can be done in one lifetime. So Niebuhr appears to be saying that nothing is worthwhile unless it is the kind of enormous, epic quest that can only be completed over several lifetimes, by thousands of people. (And perhaps not even then?)
    Nieburh says that nothing can be completed or make “complete sense” (a strange choice of words in any event). So, yes, arguing that nothing can be completed in our lifetime seems to seek to change the meaning of the word “complete.”

  • Nick earlier cited the following as examples of worthwhile things that can be done in one lifetime:

    Discovery of the etiology of infection?
    Publication of On the Origin of Species?
    Defeat of Nazi Germany?
    Discovery of the Higgs boson?
    Clinical elimination of smallpox?
    Introduction of one person one vote in South Africa?

    I agree that those are worthwhile things. But I’m pretty sure that if I had done any of those things, I would consider myself to have depended on the work of others in the process, rather than having done them completely on my own. And, as I said, I understand Niebuhr to be referring to that sort of dependency-on-others.

    And you may be right that I’m using “complete” in a nonstandard way here. That said, I mostly don’t consider definitional disputes worthwhile. If you understand the claim that I’m making, and if there’s some other word besides “complete” that would make that a reasonable claim in your mind, just let me know what that word is and I’ll use it instead, and I’ll agree that Niebuhr should have used that word instead of “complete”.

    Conversely, if my claim is unclear, or if you think it’s an unreasonable claim, perhaps we can set the definitional question aside and focus about what’s unclear or unreasonable about it.

  • Although I happen to agree with Nick, I listed some things of my own that I consider worthwhile, that are completed within one’s own lifetime.
    I do happen to consider definitional disputes worthwhile, at least sometimes, because…well, words mean things. And if “worthwhile” means only “epic quests speanning centuries,” then Nieburh’s quote is even less relevant than I originally thought.

  • OK. I concede the definitional dispute; you win. “Worthwhile” and “complete” mean only what you’re using them to mean, and to use them in other ways is to make an important error.

  • Really, dude? If you don’t want to discuss things, you can just say so. No need for such dramatics.

  • I already said I don’t consider definitional disputes worthwhile; you responded by continuing the definitional dispute. When just saying I don’t want to discuss something doesn’t help, I try other things.

  • Nick Gotts

    Of course many projects extend beyond one’s lifetime; my objection to Niebuhr is that it’s simply not true that nothing worth doing can be completed within one’s lifetime.

  • As I said to Ruby_Tea above: you earlier cited the following as examples of worthwhile things that can be done in one lifetime:

    Discovery of the etiology of infection?
    Publication of On the Origin of Species?
    Defeat of Nazi Germany?
    Discovery of the Higgs boson?
    Clinical elimination of smallpox?
    Introduction of one person one vote in South Africa?

    I agree that those are worthwhile things. But I’m pretty sure that if I had done any of those things, I would consider myself to have depended on the work of others in the process, rather than having done them completely on my own.

    And, as I said earlier, I understand Niebuhr to be referring (among other things) to that sort of dependency-on-earlier-generations.

    But I agree with you that if we take the world-as-we-find-it as a given and don’t worry about whose efforts were involved in getting it this way, and simply ask “Given all of this, can I complete worthwhile projects in my lifetime?” the answer, as you say, is obviously yes.

    And I agree that if that’s what Niebuhr is talking about then he’s simply and obviously wrong… of course we can.

  • Ross Thompson

    From the formation of a entity that could be called “Nazi Germany” to its defeat was less than one human lifetime. Therefore, unless you’re claiming that people started working to defeat the Nazis before Hitler was born, it happened within a human lifetime.

  • I’m claming that the systems that were indispensible for defeating the Nazis were being established and refined long before Hitler was born, yes. That seems pretty self-evident from my perspective.

    But, again, I agree that if we want to take a narrower perspective and claim that we didn’t actually start doing anything to defeat the Nazis until the Nazis took power, then from that perspective I agree that Niebuhr is simply and obviously wrong.

  • Mitch Conner

    I think its important to recognize that Niebuhr is taking the long view. So the struggle against Nazism (which he himself was an active participant) was but a battle in a much, much larger struggle. So we can nitpick his quote…yes, there is plenty that we can accomplish in a lifetime. But when you take a millennial view of history, which Niebuhr is doing, we continually face the same forces over and over. Not only do we depend on those who came before us, we trust that future generations will continue to do what is right. The powers of the world will continue to exert their dominance, it falls to humanity to push back against it.

  • I agree on all counts.

    Also, I find that it’s often valuable for me to take the long view, and Niebuhr reminds me to do that, independent of what he himself thought about it.

    That said, when others insist on adopting a narrower interpretive frame, on making it all about the value or valuelessness of what we do as individuals, I try to remind myself that neither authorial intent nor my personal preferences is definitive when it comes to interpreting a text, and I don’t have to keep arguing the point if I don’t choose to.