Saturday for the City

Saturday for the City

Over the past few weeks, I have been avidly reading Alan Lewis’ magnum opus, Between Cross and Resurrection, and considering its substantial implications for authentically grappling with the life of the city.[1] In it, Lewis brings serious biblical and theological acumen to the much neglected Saturday that is imbedded in the climactic weekend in the passion story of Jesus. What are we to make of Matthew’s singular attention to it, that highlights the sober but calculated protective measures sought by the priests and Pharisees (Mt.27:62-66) to ensure that nothing subversive ensued from the death of this troublesome Galilean revolutionary?  Lewis is not satisfied with a perfunctory response, but suggests that perhaps “the precise locus of this Saturday, at the interface between cross and resurrection, its very uniqueness as the one moment in history which is both after Good Friday and before Easter” (investing it, therefore, with a high level of evaluative meaning) ought to be attended to with much more rigor and practical application to the world as it is. “The nonevent of the second day”, offers Lewis, “could after all be a significant zero, a pregnant emptiness, a silent nothing which says everything”.[2]

Some kind of hint at the transactional nature of this holy Saturday is perhaps intended by the Apostle Paul when he terms as ‘of first importance’ his commitment to deliver what he also received, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).  But we are still left to question how and what anything is transacted in such a state of historical and revelatory silence?  Or is it meant to convey anything at all, but rather is a chronological necessity? Are we over-reading if we extrapolate much more than the passing of time, the assurance of a truly dead body, or the simple fulfilment of a messianic allusion? Certainly death and resurrection are the decisive factors here, endued as they are with atoning and eschatological weight.  On the other hand, is it theologically healthy to avoid such decisiveness when it has the intervening Saturday in view?

Lewis suggests that this does not do justice to the story itself.  We would do far better, in fact, to allow the impact of the death of Jesus, “without or before his resurrection” to weigh heavily upon our hermeneutic experience and provide some level of existential meaning. What is the germane, pertinent, and applicable purpose of these “anonymous, indefinite hours, filled with memories and assessments of what was finished and past…”?[3] Are they really indecisive and meaningless? Or do they, perhaps, relate to the experiential reality of so much of the human story, a story that is freighted with dejection, fear, uncertainty and the precariousness of life, so much like the intervening Saturday, before the final stages of the eschaton?

I would argue that this kind of theological accounting of the passion of Jesus is particularly suggestive when it comes to advocating for what I would call a Saturday hermeneutic when it comes to understanding the place of the city in the missional purposes of God.  It encourages us to ‘wrestle,’ as Lewis further delineates, ‘with evil, sin, and death’ on the basis of vast reservoirs of hope precisely because we do know, in fact, that evil, sin and death are penultimate realities.[4]  We ought to have a healthy and ultimate eschatological perspective in view, in which the earthly city gives way to the City of God.  After all, our purpose, according to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, is to seek “a city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).

The ‘social geography,’ as Saskia Sassen refers to it, of the present day urban landscape is more often beset with inequities too multitudinous to enumerate and account for. [5]  Sassen documents the unsettling coupling of growth in the international property market in the world’s foremost cities (along with the expansion of new growth industries) with “a continuation and consolidation of concentrated poverty and extreme physical decay in the inner cities”.[6]  This in no way excuses any theological pandering that simply encourages acquiescence.  It places these sorts of urban pathologies in a particular eschatological chronology that accredits their existential givenness a boundary within the truth of an intervening theology of holy Saturday that is decisive, rather than arbitrary. Far, in fact, from arbitrary, such a Saturday for the city deals with the realities of evil, sin, and death squarely and head on precisely because the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus guarantees that such plagues of the city are actually and only penultimate experiences in the unfolding of a new creation.

Dr Wesley White

The MA in Theology (Urban Mission) allows you explore this and many other factors relating to life, mission and culture in the cities of the world. Start studying this September, and take part in the next intensive study week in Glasgow in January 2018. Contact us to find out more.

[1] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2001)
[2] Lewis, p3
[3] Lewis, p31
[4]  Lewis, p263
[5] Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), p256
[6] Sassen, p260