Lessons from a long Holy Saturday

March 31st, 2021

“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place” (Lk 24:21) 

Holy Week is upon us, and we now journey through Jesus’ last days to the cross and the tomb. 

I’ve always felt Holy Saturday is an entirely underutilized theological resource. It is part of our Western wiring to jump forward to the resurrection, get to the point, resolve the story, tie it up with a nice neat little bow, and run the “happily ever after” closing screen. 

The COVID-19 pandemic would not play our Western game of shortcuts and quick fixes. 

An often-overlooked component of the incarnation is the three days that Jesus spends in the grave. God doesn’t stop where we live but goes before us into death. Meeting with us in our brokenness, Jesus does not bail out when things get uncomfortable; he willingly gives his life. He trusts the Father and moves into the unknown. 

Some of the people I work with, particularly those hesitant to engage anything “digital,” report that there was no “Easter Sunday” in 2020. The church was “closed.”  

The Coronavirus forced us to stay in the tomb. We have been living in the tomb time for over a year. It’s been a long Holy Saturday. This requires us to have faith and obedience in the face of uncertainty. 

Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12 reveal not only the astonishing depths of God’s love but also indicate our place is with Jesus in the tomb. This descent into the tomb with Christ is part of our journey to spiritual maturity. It is a move toward our own resurrection life. This inverts the modern world’s values of honor, prestige, and power. 

Embracing the in-between 

The tomb forces us into an uncomfortable state of liminality and confusion. We join the disoriented march back to our familiar Emmaus, saying, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place” (Lk 24:21). The tomb represents separation, disorientation, and living in the in-between. As we carry the cross, innovate, and create new things, we hit the wall of disappointment and failure. 

In my doctoral research, I created a Contextual Intelligence Framework to encourage the cultivation of contextual intelligence for the local church. Contextual Intelligence is simply the ability to accurately diagnose a context and make the correct decisions regarding what to do.[1] Leonard Sweet and I have co-authored a book on the subject released last fall: Contextual Intelligence: Unlocking the Ancient Secret to Mission on the Front Lines.  

The contextual intelligence framework is based in the incarnation of Jesus, centered mainly in the “mind of Christ” described in Philippians 2:1-11, informed by Ephesians 4 and the Gospels. 



In the contextual intelligence framework, disorientation describes the state of having lost one’s sense of direction and meaning. Organizationally speaking, this is living on the “edge of chaos” between stagnation and innovation. 

This move is associated with Jesus’ descent into the realm of the dead “obedient to the point of death” (Phil 2:8). This is the “tomb time,” the fullest expression of liminality in human history, the transition from one age (age of the law) fully into another (the age of faith). The late theologian and author Alan Lewis wrote, 

The second day appears to be a no-man’s-land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel, not its number in the series, but its place, bears its significance, as that day between the days which speaks solely neither of the cross nor of the resurrection, but simultaneously remembers the one and awaits the other, and guarantees that neither will be heard, or thought about, or lived, without the other.[2] 

While we often pass right over Jesus’ time in the grave as a non-event, it is of paramount importance. The Scriptures, church tradition, and the creeds affirm a “descent into hell.” We can safely say that Jesus was busy during the darkness of the tomb, yet the implications are perhaps beyond our finite comprehension. 

Learning from the tomb time 

We can learn a lot from what the disciples do during this time. A cursory review of the Scriptures may respond with “not much” or at least “nothing to be proud of.” They had a funeral of sorts (Jn 19: 38-41). They rested (Lk 23:56). They waited (Jn 20:2). They hid out (Jn 20:19). Some doubted (Jn 20:25). Some lamented (Jn 20:11). They talked, they processed, they prayed—they formed relationships while they waited, and they wrestled with the implications of what had happened (Lk 24:36). In actuality, this is a vast amount of significant activity. In fact, these are essential competencies of contextually intelligent persons. 

Jeanne Liedtka, American strategist and professor of business administration at the Darden School of the University of Virginia, is mainly known for her work on strategic thinking, design thinking, and organic growth. Her article “Why Design Thinking Works” in the Harvard Business Review is helpful here. 

Regarding the challenges of innovation, Lietdka writes, 

Defining problems in obvious, conventional ways, not surprisingly, often leads to obvious, conventional solutions. Asking a more interesting question can help teams discover more-original ideas. The risk is that some teams may get indefinitely hung up exploring a problem, while action-oriented managers may be too impatient to take the time to figure out what question they should be asking. [3] 

She highlights two essential points regarding contextual intelligence: asking the right questions and timing. In the “tomb time,” for instance, the disciples were asking lots of questions. Was Jesus really the one? What does this mean? Should we go home and go fishing? Can a person cursed and executed on the cross really be the messiah? Have we been duped? Are we going to be executed now too? Also, the timing was essential to their activity. In John’s narrative, we often emphasize the disciples’ cowardice, hiding out with the “doors locked for fear of the Jews” (Jn 20:19). Yet in another sense, they were doing the only thing they could do. Had they rushed out headlong into the streets of Jerusalem, considering the powder keg it was already, they likely would have met a quick fate. 

Prayerfully waiting, fortifying relationships, asking different questions 

In the in-betweenness of liminality, one experiences disorientation. It is the ambiguous reality of no longer being what you were and not yet what you are becoming. Liminality can be an opportunity to embrace this disorientation. To live in the mystery of transition. We can see the past, the events that brought us to this place. From this perspective, we can see the good and bad of that previous scenario. However, our orientation is towards the future. As we journey through the space between, we are oriented towards what’s coming, and we can only imagine the implications. 

I believe this is what the Holy Spirit is calling the church to as we embrace the new reality of a pandemic with a long tail. The tomb time is a place to wait, reflect, connect in new ways, and learn to ask different questions. 

Tomb-time involves consciously pausing to diagnosis our context through the three lenses of hindsight, insight, and foresight. Furthermore, we are in a place of powerlessness. We are waiting for God to do what only God can do. Michael Polanyi speaks of how unfinished tasks continue to preoccupy us unconsciously, and how after a period of quiescence, a solution can seemingly come to us. He writes, 

The fact that our intellectual strivings make sufficient progress during a period of incubation without any effort on our part is in line with the latent character of all knowledge. For each step—whether spontaneous or contrived—that brings us nearer to the solution, increases our premonition of the proximity of the solution, and brings us a more concentrated effort to bear on a reduced logical gap.[4] 

When faced with a challenge, a period of incubation, in which we rest from the effort of discovering a solution, helps us move through the gap. This dormancy, and the lack of purposeful intellectual energy, is a necessary stage in the process of discovery. It highlights the value of “tomb time.” 

Squandering the gift of tomb time 

One of the greatest threats as we begin to emerge from the tomb time is the rush “back to normal.” While the pandemic has been a time of flourishing creativity and innovation for many churches, if our goal is to get back to business as usual, we are squandering the gift. 

Normal wasn’t working before the pandemic. In fact, normal was dreadful. The US church has been in a death spiral of decline for decades. Outsiders look at the church and they don’t see Jesus. They see infighting, judgment, and hypocrisy. They don’t see the church as a place of healing, but a place of harm. We have failed to connect in a significant way with the last three generations in the US. We have not “made disciples” we have made “church members” many of whom bailed to other churches when we closed our sanctuary doors for the pandemic.   

Thus, the new protestant movement of “spiritual but not religious” is a push against what Western Christianity had evolved into over the past 50 years.  

The pandemic gave us the gift of a reset. We’ve had a year in the tomb to wait, pray, strengthen our relationships, and ask different questions. 

Recently, multiple church leaders have stepped forward to critique “digital church.” The essence of their lowly view of online church is, “that was a nice temporary solution, but now let’s get back to real church.”  

But what about those of us who found digital church to be just as real, or even more real, than a church centered in a building? What about all the disciples we actually made in digital space? What about the ways we learned to inhabit digitality in such a way that it brought healing to the isolated and the suffering? What about all the people who will never set foot in our sanctuaries who found a home in a digital community?  

Rosario Picardo and just released a book that attempts to wrestle with these questions, Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age: How the Church Can Prepare for a Post-Pandemic World

As we move toward resurrection season, may we remember that resurrection is about continuity, not replication. Jesus is raised from the dead in his same body, but it is different. New creation describes a radical change of state. The wound-bearing Jesus is the same, but different. May we come out of the lockdown phase of the pandemic, the same, but different.  

As we prepare to emerge from a long tomb time, many of us with a smaller group of folks in our local churches, may we seek resurrection. Resurrection is a deep tradition of disruption. It starts in the tomb. May we join Jesus there. 

Resurrection requires us to acknowledge our powerlessness and our ultimate reliance on God’s intervention. What if we were to take on a posture of vulnerability and withness, along the suffering? To join the weeping and agony of a watching world? Maybe getting back to normal is not the goal. Maybe resurrection is. Resurrection that births a new church, for a new world.   

[1] Beck, Michael Adam, “Contextual Intelligence: One Intelligence to Serve Them All” (2019). Doctor of Ministry. 359. 

[2] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), 2-4. 

[3] Liedtka, Jeanne. “Why Design Thinking WorksHarvard Business Review.

[4] Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 129. 

comments powered by Disqus