Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Sorrowful Sabbath

The following poem was written on Holy Saturday. It is the fruit of a brief meditation upon what would have been the experience of Mary on this most solemn and sorrowful of days. Often the emphasis is placed on Christ’s experience in the limbo of the fathers during this day - which is an incredible mystery to ponder upon. Yet it was a profoundly touching consideration to realise that Holy Saturday was a Jewish Sabbath (the Jewish Sabbath commencing on Friday sundown and ending on Saturday sundown), and that the Sabbath meal would have been commemorated that very Friday evening following the death of Christ.

For all Jews each Sabbath meal is a sacred time of feasting, celebration, prayer and family time; characterised by a set ritual of prayer, by the lit menorah candle, and the baked challah loaf. Jesus and Mary would have spent many Sabbaths together, most likely even after Jesus’ three years of public ministry started. (After all, we must not forget that Jesus and Mary were and in fact still are Jews - and Catholics too!). 

For Jews the Sabbath was and is a time that anticipates the Messiah and looks forward to His coming. The latest document from the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews writes as follows: "the Church remains conscious of its enduring continuity with Israel. Judaism is not to be considered simply as another religion; the Jews are instead our “elder brothers” (Saint Pope John Paul II), our “fathers in faith” (Benedict XVI)." (2). The relationship between the Catholic Church (Christianity) and Judaism is thus unique - for it is a relationship shared with no other faith tradition. Thus all orthodox Jewish concepts (even those developed post-Christ), when understood from a Catholic perspective in their proper sense (i.e. literal and/or allegorical), are fulfilled in the Catholic faith which is the blossoming of the Jewish seed. 

As Christians we therefore do not throw away the Sabbath, but for the majority of the Church's life the Sabbath has been celebrated on Sunday - the Lord's Day instead. Some Hebrew Catholics continue to celebrate the Sabbath meal. Yet on a spiritual level the Sabbath refers to the eternal day of rest which we all anticipate in the world to come. In Judaism there is the concept of the Sabbath Queen which is understood by Jews to refer to the Shekinah, the Divine Presence - which in a Catholic understanding speaks of the Holy Spirit and Mary in union with Him as Spouse of the Holy Spirit; and this is why the following poem refers to our Lady as the Sabbath Queen - Jesus being the Sabbath King.

The allusions between Mary and Jesus as Queen and King, and therefore as Bride and Groom are purely spiritual terms that refer to their bond of a chaste virginal-nupital-union, which mirrors the relationship between Christ and the Church which is described in Ephesians in spousal language. Such terminology is employed within this poem. Yet this exact form of allegory has been applied to Jesus and Mary implicitly in the Scriptures of both Testaments, and explicitly by the Church Fathers. For example Peter Chrysologus (380-450 A.D.) writes in relation to Mary: "Christ, then, takes his own bride." (Sermo, 140, 2; PL 52, 576.).

It would not be unreasonable to think that the Sabbath meal was skipped on the first Good Friday, due to the grief of Mary, who likely would have spent the evening with at least John and perhaps the other two Mary’s – Magdalene and Cleopas. Yet perhaps She did commemorate the Sabbath meal, or part of the ceremony thereof. Whether the literal Sabbath meal took place or not, on a spiritual level the imagery is still poignant. How many Sabbath meals did Jesus spend with His Mother? How many times did She lay the table and prepare a place for Him? How many times did She light the candle and carry out the role of the woman of the house, whilst contemplating through the flickering light of the menorah the beauty of He who is the Only Begotten Light of the Father?

Several lines from the Musical Les Misérables come to mind in regards to Mary's perspective on this sad occasion when Jesus wasn't there: "There's a grief that can't be spoken. There's a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables". 

There's a symbol of Mary's grief within the Sabbath meal itself. For the Jewish woman of the house is supposed to carry out the lighting of the menorah before the Sabbath meal, and she does so by bringing forth her hands three times from the lit menorah to her forehead - symbolising the invoking of the Shekinah. One might also say, guided by the Providence of God, this Jewish action represents the sorrow of Mary on the Sabbath, and which lasted three days (in the Jewish sense); for the hand action upon the face is akin to the appearance when one covers their face in weeping.

One cannot fathom the sorrow that would have filled the soul of Mary that Sabbath evening, and the following day. The day of rest ordained by God, the day of contentment and joy, had become for She who is the Sabbath Queen the day of the most bitter mourning and deepest sorrow. Indeed it is because of this Sorrowful Sabbath that every Sabbath is a joyous occasion. It is because of this Sorrowful Sabbath that we have access to the Eternal Sabbath in which there shall be no more tears. Yet secretly, deep within Her soul, the candle of the Supernal Menorah blazed with the sure and happy knowledge of the Resurrection. This then is the longing of the Sabbath, the longing for the Messiah to come in His Resurrected glory, to wipe away every tear from every eye, and to fill the hungry with good things. 

O Sorrowful Sabbath, O most Holy of Saturday's, source and hope of every good thing, we commemorate you and hail your Queen, who with your King, through Her pangs of birth, brought forth septuplets - the seven gifts of the Spirit and the seven sacraments for the Church, as olive shoots to fill the empty place of Gethsemane and Calvary’s King.

Marred body of Saviour laid resting
In tomb most dark with linen dressing.
Whilst Jerusalem also rested
On Sabbath day which haunt invested.

‘Twas the first and last of all Sabaoth
On which Sabbath Queen wept and sang not;
For asleep laid the King her dear groom,
Who would wake not despite mournful tune.

There never has nor will be a day
That went as long as when dead he lay.
For to loose a child so pure as this
Leaves at the table a vast abyss.

‘Though his courtiers did all forget
The promise he made prior sunset;
His bride did keep aflame the candle
Of knowledge secret that death he’d trample.

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