Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Saturday Living, Part II

In the National Gallery of Art, there is a series of five panels by Benvenuto di Giovanni, showing the events of Holy Week. The fourth depicts Christ in Limbo, that extra place where early Christian philosophers felt it necessary to stick the dead who couldn't reach Heaven but didn't deserve Hell. According to Peter, on Holy Saturday Christ was liberating the dead from the underworld. All the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, all the holy pagans and those faithful who died without seeing the fulfillment of God's Kingdom, lay waiting for Christ to come to their rescue, smash down the gates of Hades, and lead them out into the light of Heaven. So here, di Giovanni shows Christ at the opening of a cavern, the waiting dead crowded up at the entrance, eagerly reaching out to touch their savior. The gates of Limbo have been torn down, and, in a nice touch, Christ is standing atop the gate while a squashed demon lies spread-eagle below it, Looney Tunes-style. Christ is carrying a flag, bringing the dominion of God into the unreachable, hopeless places.

From the National Gallery website

So that's Saturday. Back above ground, the disciples huddle together, abandoned and afraid. Salvation is happening somewhere on Saturday, but it's not yet apparent in the world. On the other side there is rejoicing, the upending of death, the victory of the cross, but for people living in the everyday, death and fear and oppression are still the winners. On Saturday, Caeser still reigns.

I saw this painting on Holy Saturday last year, midway through my pregnancy, confused and lonely. Four blocks from home after leaving the Gallery, I was approached by a women with a preteen daughter. I'm homeless, she said. We need some money for food. Great, I thought, I can buy them lunch, chit-chat, ask them if they've tried to get help through ASPAN, see if there's anyone I can get them in touch with.

Sure, I said; I can take you to one of these restaurants for lunch.

We need money for food, she repeated. We're hungry.

I asked if I could buy them a sandwich at the deli next to us. No, she said; we need money for food. We're going to use it to buy food at Giant.

Giant? I asked. That's a mile down the road. Can I take you to the grocery store around the corner? And the woman stepped back and said, fine, you won't give us money for food, and before I could say anything else she had pushed her daughter off the curb and was towing her across the street, dodging cars. I stood watching them as the traffic closed in between us and wondered, does that girl go to school and get a meal at the cafeteria, or does nobody know that she exists? I looked at the girl's stocky, stiff back as she was rushed up the other sidewalk, remembering her blank expression, the way she didn't meet my eyes, and I wondered where she slept and who was hurting her and if anybody was ever going to rescue her. 

I thought, I was supposed to do something more than that. I was supposed to help tear down the door and crush the demons. I thought, What happened to Easter? Hell is alive and well.

Now it's another Lenten season. Now there's a new little girl, and I carried her up to the altar, and the priest smeared ashes on her forehead and said,

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

And I swear I was this close to body-checking that dignified, gracious man, just slamming him into the marble floor and hollering "Maybe all the rest of us are, but NOT MY BABY!"

I wanted to scrub the ashes off of her face and make it so that she would never get sick, never be injured, never be betrayed or abused, never ever die. I wanted to change the world so that this child would live forever in perfect joy.

Now there's such urgency. God, may your kingdom come, and may your will be done on Earth now, before this little girl is out of time.

Sometimes life is an endless Holy Saturday. Sometimes nobody is coming to the rescue. Sometimes I'm the nobody; I'm the one who fails to come to the rescue. It's hard to look back before Saturday, and see the work that Christ has done, and believe it made any difference. It's hard to look ahead and believe that when the day ends it's going to be Easter.

And sometimes there's an anger inside that tells me, yes, something is going to break. Yes, we matter. We matter enough that God would break the cycle of birth and death, and upend the world in order to rescue us.

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