Today, and still more than three weeks ahead of time, we move on from Good Friday to Holy Saturday (or Easter Eve). This is the most solemn day of the Christian year, as if we try to put ourselves in the place of Jesus’ disciples, their last hope of him being saved from the cross has gone. This is the theme of the service of Tenebrae.
This hymn, “Dark is the night” by Paul Wigmore, actually takes the theme of darkness as it features three times in the Gospel stories. The other theme the three verses have in common is reference to Jesus’ friends (his closest disciples). Verse 1 is set on what we call Maundy Thursday with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper and after sunset. The darkness is natural and real, but there’s a sense of moral darkness here too, as friends sleep while the Temple police come to arrest their Lord. “Lanterns and swords no radiance, no defence” – they are dealing with an irresistible force in the face of which there is nothing to be done with the tools available, and they turn and run.
The second verse is set on Good Friday as all his friends (except for several women including his mother, and just one male disciple conventionally identified as John) deserted him or stood far off – “hiding from his death and loss”. The gospels record that the sun was darkened that day as Jesus died. Whether that is literally true or a metaphor we cannot say, but if not literally true, perhaps in the way that some people say they feel cold in the presence of a ghost or can sense an evil spirit. The other events that occurred at the moment of his death were more physical – an earthquake that shook the rocks and caused the Temple veil to split. A ray of hope is suggested by the reference to the thief promised forgiveness and paradise by Jesus, the “first fruits of salvation”.
The third is set in the early hours of Easter day, before dawn and with the added darkness of a rock-hewn tomb, not to mention the grief of the friends (again women, initially) who come to complete the embalming of his body. Perhaps the notion in these words that they have come “to find if death has won indeed, or risen he” is premature, as they seem to have had no idea that the body might have gone until they get there. Likewise the final line “we … prepare in faith his wondrous face to see” is anticipating the surprise of Easter. For the moment, let’s stay in the darkness, because it’s only when we appreciate just what horrors happened on Good Friday and how bereft the world was with the death of its saviour, that we can be emptied enough to be filled with Easter joy when it comes.