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Death and New Life on Holy Saturday

April 11th, 2022 | 5 min read

By Cort Gatliff

In the center of the photograph, an injured young woman lies on a stretcher. Her face is dusted in ash. Her left hand cradles her pregnant stomach. Men armed with rifles and wearing bulletproof vests carry her through the smoldering rubble of a maternity hospital hit by a Russian airstrike.

It is one of the widely shared images that captures the horror of what is happening in Ukraine. There are, tragically, many more just like it. One picture shows a group of swaddled newborns from a neonatal intensive care unit lying on mattresses in a makeshift bomb shelter. Another tells of a woman forced to give birth while hiding from explosions in an underground subway station.

When we think about war, we usually think of soldiers and weaponry. But these pictures—which can now reach us in the comfort of our homes just moments after they’re taken on the battlefield—confront us with the gruesome reality of what the pride of men has wrought. It is always the vulnerable who suffer most, and few are more vulnerable than these women and these children.

As I look at the images on my computer screen, I say a prayer for the woman on the stretcher, whose name I will never know. I pray for her unborn child, and for the babies born in bomb shelters. I pray for the parents unable to protect the ones they love.

I close my laptop and turn toward my sleeping wife. She is 36 weeks pregnant.

“Ask yourself: will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child?” writes poet-farmer Wendell Berry. “Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?” I had never truly understood these lines until I witnessed the joy and pain of pregnancy up close. Pregnancy, like the Incarnation, like the cross itself, is a holy amalgamation of vulnerability and strength that should be honored and protected above all else. In the past few weeks, Berry’s questions have taken on a fresh urgency as our screens have been filled with the faces of wounded women and children seeking places to sleep, to give birth, undisturbed. Lately I have come to view these questions as an ethical north star that orients me in the complexity of modern life: Things that harm “a woman satisfied to bear a child” almost always harm us all.

My wife and I found out we were having our second child, another daughter, last August. This news came as no surprise. Our first, Eleanor, had just turned one, and we were already eager to continue to grow our family. A few days after seeing those two pink lines on the pregnancy test, we sat in our doctor’s office listening to the steady rhythm of our child’s heartbeat punctuate the static of the fetal doppler.

“It looks like the due date is going to be—” the doctor paused for a moment to consult numbers and charts on his screen—“April 16.” I pulled up the calendar on my phone and scrolled forward through time to April. My wife and I are both pastors, so we had hoped we could get through Easter before the birth. Based on our amateur calculations, though, we knew it would be close.

My eyes found April 16 on the calendar: Holy Saturday, the often-overlooked day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The day when the breathless body of Christ laid still in a borrowed tomb. It’s a day marked by the apparent absence of God, a day that sits in the tension between death and new life.

At first this seemed to be little more than an interesting, perhaps even inappropriate, intersection of my personal life with the church calendar. How strange, I thought, to celebrate the joy of birth on a day when the grave appears to be victorious. How odd, to give thanks for the cries of a newborn when God seems to be silent. But as war and rumors of war captured the attention of the world, the darkness of Holy Saturday has cast a shadow over the entire season of Lent. Where is God when bombs fall on maternity wards? Where is God when women are forced to give birth underground? These are Holy Saturday questions.

Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, once declared that our moment in history was “increasingly becoming one long Holy Saturday.” Ours is a generation in which God remains hidden. As a theologian and pastor, Pope Benedict has thought more deeply than most about this peculiar day’s role in the life of the church, and for good reason. He was born and baptized on Holy Saturday in 1927, which also happened to fall on April 16.

Holy Saturday, Pope Benedict says, represents the human condition. We are surrounded by death, and it seems that all is lost. “The heavy stone of the new tomb is covering the dead man,” he writes. “It’s all over; the faith seems to have been definitively unmasked as a fantasy.” Holy Saturday creates space for us to be honest about the grief and despair we feel as we contemplate the state of our hearts and of our world.

And yet Holy Saturday does not leave us without hope. It is out of the deepest silence that God speaks most clearly and definitively. In the darkest hour of death, the light of resurrection is already beginning to break forth. The fact that Jesus “descended into hell” should bring us profound comfort. Various traditions hold different interpretations of these mysterious words, but at the very least, we can say this: Christ goes before us and with us, even unto death. And wherever Christ goes, he brings new life. “The most obscure mystery of the faith,” Pope Benedict writes, “is at the same time the clearest sign of a hope without end.”

It is all too easy to romanticize the suffering and struggles of others. I feel the disconnect of my waxing theological about hope amid sorrow when I am neither living in a war-torn city nor mere days away from enduring the pain of childbirth. And yet as I read the headlines and feel the kicks of my new daughter inside the womb, my mind recalls these words from Stanley Hauerwas: “Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world.” I pray this is true.

As the Lenten season passes and Holy Saturday approaches, my wife’s stomach grows, a sign that something hidden and miraculous is taking place inside. In this, the womb and the tomb of Holy Saturday do similar work. I think again of the mothers-to-be in Ukraine, surrounded by death yet nevertheless anticipating the life that will soon burst forth. In their faces I see the fear and vulnerability of Mary, the mother of our God, whose child was also born into violent political unrest caused by an evil, insecure leader. What wondrous love is this, that God would overcome the world not with missiles or mortars but with the sound of a newborn’s cry? What wondrous, maddening, confounding love.

This morning, with my wife sleeping beside me and my daughter stirring in her crib, I opened my laptop to read the latest news. The young woman, the one pictured on the front page laid out on the stretcher, had died—both her and her child. Her husband and father had come to collect her body. The hospital workers who cared for her reported they never knew her name.