The Trouble with (Holy) Saturday

Palm Sunday and I’m sitting with my family in Venice, Italy, eating pizza. My partner and I are trying to express the importance of this day, this coming week, the Christic story in general as the mozzarella strings drip from of our mouths.

The trouble is we are not, as one might say, “believers.” And we have never made church attendance compulsory, even though, or maybe because, we both were made to attend as children. Which makes our task considerably more difficult when trying to keep the kids’ attention, trying to get them to care when we so obviously don’t.

We do care. That’s not it. We care because we both teach sweeping histories of humanity in our college courses, and the Jesus story is vital to any robust history. Believe it or not.

We also do care because these old stories matter. They did and do. There are lessons to be learned, morals to be memorized, truths to be told.

In our telling, Jesus is a revolutionary. He’s come to Jerusalem—so the people hoped—to set the captives free, to liberate the Israelites from those nasty, brutish Romans who are now occupying their promised land. He came, like the MacArthur Foundation, to create a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. Yet, unlike the revolutionaries of the United States and French independence movements, as the kids learned about in school, this one failed. No George Washington here. No new establishment. No verdant lands.

“Wait, what? So, he’s some guy that got killed?”

“Um, yeah. Sort of. It’s a paradoxical story, an upside down thing.”

“Ok, sure. Why is he such a big deal? It’s not like he became President of Jerusalem. Why does he get a holiday then?”


I had little answer beyond the orthodox one. Something about sacrifice and atonement, and being the Son of God, which never made sense to me, I think even when I could be considered a believer. (What meaning does sacrifice have in a late-capitalist age for a middle-class family?) I didn’t want to even begin to go there. Nor does resurrection do much for the story.


A week later I’m still stumped, but I think Holy Saturday has given me some clarity, if you can believe that. On this day, I’m sitting in a 17th century church in the middle of Madrid, observing the beginnings of a procession. The local brotherhood (though there are women included) will carry a large wooden sculpture of the supine dead Christ through the streets of the city. The handful of teenagers who have been imposed upon to play their instruments as part of the march filing out of the church, look ill at ease, maybe slightly confused. Or just frustrated. Maybe no one explained the whole theology to them either. Maybe since its a lovely Saturday afternoon they’d rather be elsewhere.

As I sit, I think about the dead Christ, about the body, about the dying and the failed revolution.

One week earlier, the day before our Pizza-Palm Sunday, we visited the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, and I got to see one of my favorite paintings that I’ve never seen in the flesh: Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ. I’ve shown it to students for years, but only understood it in the .JPG version. To see the strange, almost deformed body of Jesus—puncture wounds in hands and feet cleaned but highly visible, like real flesh is there on the canvas—up close and personal was chilling.

Figure one: Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1480)

There really is no better work for a Holy Saturday, no other depiction of a dead body, especially one that had so much hope poured into it, so much expectation to not die. Indeed, this was a body that was supposed to have triumphed, to start the revolution.

Perhaps Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ comes close, that dubious depiction that drove Dostoyevsky’s character Ippolit in The Idiot to question everything, to wonder, “if death is so terrible and the laws of nature are so powerful, how can they be overcome?” For it is the image of the dead body that causes the doubts and shudderings, makes nothing possible beyond this day. No resurrection. No revolution.

Figure two: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Body of the Dead in the Tomb (1520-2)

Ultimately, it is not the dead body of Jesus that makes Mantegna’s picture an emblem of a Holy Saturday, but the Marys in the upper left corner. Their expressions, equal parts grief and disbelief, get to the visceral, gut punch of revolution (and resurrection) denied. Left to contemplate the dead body itself, the Marys bring the viewers into the space, to peer over death itself. There is no Sunday.

Death, as historian Philippe Ariès and others have argued, has been pushed out of everyday life in the modern West. In the name of progress, we’ve forgotten how to die, and how to see death. Not only has our scientific mindset denied the miraculous resurrection of Sunday, we’ve denied the earthbound nature of Saturday’s death as well.

I’m still not sure what more to say to the kids, though they’ve moved on to watching YouTube vines about father fails. But maybe Holy Saturday is revolutionary because we take our place with the Marys and learn to face death here. Without hope of Sunday morning.

Figure three: Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation over the Dead Christ [detail]

S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at or on Twitter @splate1.