When I was a kid, a free-flowing river meandered its way through my backyard. Growing up in dark, drippy, soulful Oregon winters, I’d watch the death of January conquer, year after year, the once free-flowing and wild Willamette River. By mid-month, during the muffled silence of cold, a deep, bone-chilling freeze would halt every living thing upon the face of our backyard.
The river looked dead—frozen dead. But the frozen river wasn’t really dead. My old man would tell me that underneath that cold, dark, seemingly dead surface was a wild, powerful, primal flow that untrained eyes couldn’t imagine. You had to believe it was alive.
Below the Surface
For some, and probably for more than are ready to admit it, faith can at times appear like the dead surface of a frozen river. But below the dead-looking surface is a living river too—a glorious dark. What appears as dead is really alive like the wind.
Faith, as I’ve been told, is the story of things unseen. That’s the story of the frozen river. Underneath every story of death and darkness and doubt is a hidden flow of God’s resurrection and power and glory, which almost nobody chooses to see.
I think we need to learn how to see below the surface.
I’ve come to believe that Christian faith is embodied in three days—a long weekend Christians call Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. In those three days, we experience a holistic expression of what Jesus wants us to live. We must remember that Christian faith is the whole weekend and that we must enter all three days—we must embrace the pain of Friday’s sunset, the awkwardness of Saturday’s silence and the hopeful sunrise of Sunday morning.
These three days serve as a kind of grand finale to what’s known as Holy Week. Holy Week is to Christians what dead week is to college students—it’s a preparation for the one who comes to us still, this year, again, to die and be resurrected to take away our sin.
Sometimes Holy Week feels like a time to make up for a yearlong bout of spiritual procrastination in the same manner we start flossing hours prior to our dentist appointment. But it shouldn’t be like that. Holy Week is a preparation—regardless of how faithless we may have been all year long—for the full life and experience of the resurrected Lord who will again, like the faithfulness of a sunrise, arise out of the cold tomb of our sin and narcissism.
During the first Holy Week, Christians profess, a lowly cabinetmaker named Jesus came out of the woodwork to die an excruciating death upon a wooden Roman cross on a Friday, lie in a borrowed, dusty grave on Saturday and rise to defeat death early Sunday morning.
During that weekend, the ancients testify, God rescued the whole world from its captivity to sin and the devil. Chalk it up as the most productive weekend in human history. And it’s because of that one weekend in history that Christianity exists.
Christianity works precisely because death didn’t. There truly is abundant—one might say, bottomless—life in Jesus. However, this life isn’t found on Sunday alone. Life is found in all three days—pain and death on Friday, doubt on Saturday, and resurrection on Sunday. To follow Jesus as we’re created to is to simultaneously enter the whole weekend.
Today’s Christians, lamentably, almost never embrace the totality of the weekend in their personalized versions of Christianity. We’re picky about the one day of the weekend we desire to experience. Incomplete, this makes for three cheap knock-off versions of Christianity.
Friday Christianity is the religion of those who’ve chosen to find their identity in a spirituality of defeat, death and loss. Their spiritual depth abides solely in the torment of suffering on the cross. Friday Christians worship suffering so much that they assume one must be experiencing loss and suffering in order to be considered “honest” or “authentic” or “real.”
This way of faith has a huge price tag. When we live only in Friday, we assume that the Christian life is an existence of pain and punishment—and those who smile or have joy must be fake. Friday Christianity is about losing, about pain, about suffering.
Sunday Christianity is equally problematic. These chipper, ever-too-happy Christians see God in, and only in, victory, prosperity and blessing. Everything, for them, is a footnote on their own pursuit of personal happiness.
When Christians live in Sunday alone, they fabricate a kind of hassle-free approach to Christian spirituality that, while outwardly appealing, is entirely lacking power. It lacks the ability to sustain because when one camps out on Sunday, there’s little space for the reality of loss and pain. Those who are sick, underpaid, mourning or weeping are probably just that way because of sin or lack of faith. They’re doing something wrong, a Sunday Christian assumes. Sunday Christianity dismisses the realities of death and loss.
Lastly, we can find Saturday Christianity. Holy Saturday is the day in the middle: the day Jesus remains in the grave. It’s an in-betweenness, a liminality, an uncertainty, a doubt—that moment you’re unsure if the sun will ever rise again.
Saturday Christianity is for those of us who’ve come to consider doubt and ambiguity as final destinations rather than conduits through which we actually enter into resurrection. When we celebrate only Holy Saturday, we believe, in our doubt and questioning, that we have permission to be cynics and deconstructionists—and that everyone should sit in our graves with us.
It’s not that uncommon for me to imagine that my faith—my love of God, my desire to know Him—is a lie, a crutch, a dead, frozen river in the backyard. I still hear Dad tell me about the cold, hidden mysteriousness of the living waters rushing below the ice.
Then Hope himself sails his little dinghy into the harbor of my life. No matter how dark the river looks, how cold and frozen it becomes, in Christ there’s always the power of resurrection flowing in the secret below. We just have to learn how to see it.
Excerpted from “A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension between Belief and Experience” by A.J Swoboda. Baker Books, 2015. bakerbooks.com
A. J. Swoboda teaches biblical studies, theology and church history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and Fuller Seminary, among others. He pastors Theophilus church in Portland, Oregon.