The Three Days
By Martin E. Marty
How are you spending FriDAY, SaturDAY and SunDAY this week?
I can picture that, if you are “living Lutheran,” you are likely to be at worship at least on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Service times are set by the schedulers of your parish or the congregation where you will be visiting. Yet it may also be a good exercise to try to figure out the hours in which events occurred that prompt schedules of worship now.
I recall my sister, my brother and I being schooled at the breakfast table on “The Three Days” as our parents tried to help us imagine, first, Jesus in his suffering, then the silence, then the glory of resurrection. It took some teaching on their part and imagination on ours to figure out that time zones in Jerusalem differed from ours in Nebraska.
I know we had trouble defining and picturing “the Ninth Hour” at other than our 9 o’clock. But the exercise was valuable for us to identify with the story we heard so often, especially when we had to picture how long the agony of Jesus on the cross stretched out. We were not asked to be morbid or depressed, but to realize that the long day was an action of love, expressed most expensively: with pain.
Then came Saturday, and we had no idea of what to think about then. In those days few of our churches observed “The Vigil of Easter,” and we only spoke of “Silent Saturday.”
Neither our parents nor any parents we knew had trouble getting children “up” to identify with the events of Sunday morning, Easter, the festival of the Resurrection. For that matter, we were “up” before they swung into action. We knew that we’d be finding eggs under the porch or in the cleft of low-hung trees, and everyone would be bright and happy, despite the big D’s of our time and place: the Depression, Drought, the edge of the Dust Bowl.
Christ is risen! That claim broke the silence of Saturday and ended the need for vigil.
Today I find the Easter Vigil to be one of the most vivid and valuable of the hours of the Three Days. I’ve been privileged to observe it on the Mount of Olives as well as on the Plains or in the cities of America.
Darkness surrounds us at the beginning. In Jerusalem we each averted our gaze as local Benedictines at midnight slaughtered a lamb. (We can happily skip that in our observances.) Oh, yes, still darkness. And then fires are lit, or candles are allowed to glow in nearly dark sanctuaries. Unmatched is the thrill that we experience when the hour has come to “be” in Jerusalem, to “hear” the words of disciples and Mary Magdalene at the tomb, which is now empty, and the angelic announcement, “He is risen!”
The plot of this little exercise in timing “there and here,” “then and now,” stresses how our bodies and emotions, depressed on Friday, weary but coming to be attentive on Saturday, identify with the story of the Resurrection. “If Christ be not raised,” Paul wrote. We all know the rest, about how in vain is our faith. But bodies and emotions thrill to the words and the reality: “But now Christ is risen!"
Take it from there.
Martin Marty is an emeritus professor at The University of Chicago, ordained to the Office of Christian Ministry 60 years ago.