Saturday, April 07, 2012

A Holy Saturday Meditation, with Bergman and Chesterton

Every Good Friday to Holy Saturday I intend to watch Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. Sometimes I get around to it, sometimes I don't. Five years ago I wrote this after watching the film a third time with some seminary friends; after being jarred again by its depth and its despair. There is still something very-the-matter with the earth, and the pastor in this film is done denying it. In fact he cries out about it.


[Spoiler alert! But in a way not, because this film cannot be spoiled.] For many interpreters of the film, I think this pastor's collapse represents his loss of faith. In a significant sense, even to him, surely it does. In that moment he says he is 'free'. But what strikes me is that there, in the stark cold of the bright winter light of his newfound 'freedom from God' - in his sickness and his suffering and in his 'freedom' - he finds himself crumbling at the altar of the crucifix of God.

In fact, keep watching and he ends up back at the church again, preparing to serve the communion. There is but one soul in the building ready to recieve. She is an avowed atheist, and yet she holds out hope for him. And in comes Algot the hunchback, who ordinarily lights the candles and rings the bells. This time he does so in more ways than one, however, for he reminds Tomas the pastor and doubter of the crucifixion of Christ, when God was forsaken of God. And it is in this solidarity with his sufferings that I think this despairing pastor finds the faith again to go on. Even if barely.

This scene always brings to mind for me the startling lines from GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy; lines better read in fuller context but which pack the following punch:
"If the divinity [of Christ] is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete ....

Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all the creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point – and does not break ....

In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt ....

He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God ... [Search high and low and you won’t] find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, (the matter grows too difficult for human speech,) but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist" (pp. 204-206)
At the cross we find a God who entered the wreckage and the silence of our disconnect and our travesty. We find the Creator who entered creation, and who came all the way and more. So when we feel the silence we know that He felt it aloud. We know that God is with us in it, and that in the crucified Saviour there is a silent suffering that speaks louder than words.

Tomas Ericsson as Pastor Gunnar Björnstrand in "Winter Light"
The silence only speaks, of course, because it was broken; because Jesus is alive. This Word has not been muted even by the death which it took on. Hearkening throughout the centuries it rings with every church bell and flickers with every church candle: There is more to the story. It may yet be winter but there is present the promise of spring. The Christian faith is nothing without this.

But Easter Sunday is also nonsensical without Holy Saturday. And yet I've been in enough Good Friday services to know that we tend to skip the forsaken Christ to get on with the happy ending; with what we construe to be the fulfilled life. But if our liturgy reflects our life, we may need to let the whole weekend ask us a question or two: What is the life into which the risen Jesus guides? Is it not to follow the Light in the darkness? Are not the people of God to find him and follow him in the world, bringing not disregard and presumption but a hope-filled willingness to wrestle together with God and to lose? Is it not the worst thing imaginable to wrestle alone and to win? We should be careful not to perpetuate such a thing  - this weekend most of all.

But to gather in a community where light meets darkness takes courage; a courage few (if any) of us have; a courage born of faith in a crucified and risen Lord. Nonetheless, since I've come this far let me leave with one more question: If our sanctuaries and homes are not the safe places for such courageous community, can we blame people for thinking our God is still dead? God help us.

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