May 16, 2012 / Theology
In this interview, Snarr shares insights about the living wage movement and reflects theologically and ethically on the role of religious activism as a response to economic injustice.
April 7, 2009
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
This new beginning of our discussion of the universe requires a fuller division than the former; for then we made two classes, now a third must be revealed. The two sufficed for the former discussion: one, which we assumed, was a pattern intelligible and always the same; and the second was only the imitation of the pattern, generated and visible. There is also a third kind which we did not distinguish at the time, conceiving that the two would be enough. But now the argument seems to require that we should set forth in words another kind, which is difficult of explanation and dimly seen. What nature are we to attribute to this new kind of being? We reply, that it is the receptacle, and in a manner the nurse, of all generation. I have spoken the truth; but I must express myself in clearer language, and this will be an arduous task for many reasons [. . . .] Wherefore, the mother and receptacle of all created and visible and in any way sensible things [. . .] is an invisible and formless being which receives all things and in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible.
—Plato, The Timaeus2
It is a lonely scene, really. Knowing that he has just participated in the immanent crucifixion of Jesus, Judas stumbles his way back to the place of his most egregious transgression. Only the gospel of Matthew bothers to report evidence of a major reversal in Judas’s mentality between the Gethsemane betrayal and his suicide-by-hanging. We learn in Matthew 27 that Judas has something of a change of heart when he hears that Jesus will soon die because of the betrayal. Although his original motives are unrecoverable, Matthew carefully notes that Judas “repented”3 and retraced his steps, silver in hand, to the religious leaders who were behind the conspiracy against Jesus. Judas appeals to these men by offering the sweet sound of a specific and heartfelt confession. “I have sinned,” he claims. But the priests offer him no avenue of absolution. Judas is turned away with these stunning words of priestly failure: “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”4
It is not the death of Jesus that immediately precipitates Judas’ suicide; it is these words. Then, in one shocking verse, Matthew quickly and summarily describes Judas’s reaction to these words, “Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself” (Matt. 27:5). Why does Matthew pause to tell us this part of the story? For the most part, the evangelists make very little of the time that passes between the cross and the resurrection. Most of the events they recount are fairly trivial—Matthew discusses the provisions for Jesus’s body and some Roman concerns about the sealing of the tomb; Mark and Luke mention that Mary Magdalene and Jesus’s mother accompany the body of Jesus all the way to the grave (Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55); and the gospel of John says nothing. These hushed moments, the uneventful events of Holy Saturday, are understandably overlooked in contemporary retellings of Jesus’ passion. There is little to be said, after all, when the Word of life lies silent and interred. There is little to be seen when the Light of the world is extinguished. These Holy Saturday moments are bleak indeed. So perhaps the Judas suicide story, full of despair and hopelessness, is an appropriate Holy Saturday event, whether or not the sun had set on Good Friday. Some theologians have begun to ask questions about how we might be theologically faithful to this neglected day in the Christian calendar, and this essay is my attempt to craft a response. My study of this dark day is driven by a suspicion that the experiences of Holy Saturday resonate with everyday experiences of aimlessness, loss, trauma, and confusion.
This is not the first suggestion that we ought to pay attention to the Saturday hiatus in the Christian passion story.5 The novelty of this essay is my exploration of the intersection of this unusual philosophical term with Christianity’s Holy Saturday and my assertion that Holy Saturday is better understood by way of khora. I suggest that Holy Saturday provides rich symbols for engaging the theological and existential paralysis of khora, revealing a very Christian time of divine healing and eschatological hope.
It would be disingenuous, however, to suggest that I study Holy Saturday for its own sake or even out of scholarly or spiritual curiosity. It is rather the experience of the disciples, of the women who lingered at Jesus’s tomb, and particularly, of Judas that compels this study. But even beyond understanding what it was like to loiter beside the corpse of Jesus or to feel the raw culpability of Judas, I suggest that the Holy Saturday experience is an ongoing characteristic of creaturely existence. In this essay, I propose a theology of Holy Saturday experience in which the healing and redemptive Triune movement does not reverse but consecrates and sanctifies this day.
The gaping silence between Good Friday and Easter Sunday cannot be explained as a welcome pause or an artistic hiatus. Children find joyful anticipation on Christmas Eve of the morning to come; we relish the anticipation of seeing a loved one after a long separation. Music and cinema, even paintings and architecture, all toy with anticipation, the art of the hiatus, but Holy Saturday does not serve this function in the Christian story. Holy Saturday is blunt and bleak and uncomfortable. Mirroring the near silence of the gospels, very few Christian communities gather for worship on Holy Saturday.6 Instead, Christians tend to rush past Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday.7 Uncomfortable with the darkness of Saturday and eager for a happy ending, we hurry to the end of the passion narrative. This transgression (literally “movement across”) robs Christianity of one of its most vital moments, nullifying one of its richest and most intriguing symbols. Holy Saturday, by nature silent, allows itself to be pushed around and shoved aside—no strong story or event lurches out of the narrative to give us pause. The pause is the very point. A story without pause is poorly told. But moving quickly past Holy Saturday does much more than blanch an exciting narrative, it does much more than tarnish the artistry of God’s narration: to gloss over Saturday is to profoundly misread the story.
Judas’s experience, and later, the failure of the priests and the disciples, provide a poetic refrain for this discussion of Holy Saturday. Consideration of Judas’s demise should make us ponder how Christian theology applies to people for whom meaning has dissolved and the hope of healing is beyond articulation or foreseeable possibility. Indeed, few terms in language address the empty silence of Holy Saturday. Itself a time where symbols and hopes perish, Saturday is difficult to talk about without jumping quickly to an Easter justification for the hurtful darkness of the Saturday experience.
Christianity is, and always has been, at search for adequate symbols for the engagement of raw human existence. Victims of abuse and trauma have testified to the inadequacy of Christian symbolism in engaging with the depth of their hurt and despair.8 It is perhaps the noblest of theological endeavors to search out the stories and symbols of Christianity that help us to authentically engage with our perplexing, disturbing world. So by slowing down the frames of the story, by feeling and hearing the weight of Saturday’s quiet sorrow, perhaps the Easter narrative, the central Christian narrative, will seem more authentic, more reflective of our despair.
I offer Holy Saturday as a valuable Christian symbol for engaging a world of brokenness, but Holy Saturday will function unlike normal symbols. We are accustomed to symbols that have identifiable and nameable referents. Holy Saturday remains symbolic, but the symbolism of Saturday is noteworthy for its lack of any structured referent. It symbolizes the unsayable and marks the breakdown of theology and philosophy, even language itself.
After dwelling on Saturday, our obsessions with loud speech and rapid action become embarrassingly obvious. The symbols of Saturday run in the reverse direction of the forceful movements of speech and action. Saturday’s hiatus drives our search for articulation below ground. We must go looking for a word or concept to describe this time when the great Logos is silent, the great Light has gone out, the great Hope has perished. Even as the other three gospels move rather breathlessly forward, Matthew pauses to narrate a moment where meaning has literally gone underground. Enter Hakeldema.9
Judas, in a denial that mirrors Peter’s, is not convinced at the Last Supper that he is the foretold betrayer. He does not believe that the horrible and damning passage quoted by Jesus can really apply to him and his Passover scheme; “Surely not I, Rabbi?”10 The motivations and emotions behind Judas’s betrayal escape even the most careful readings of these texts, but he is clearly presented as an ambivalent character. Judas denies being the prophesied betrayer, dips his hand into the bowl with Jesus, kisses Jesus at the moment of betrayal, is profoundly anguished when Jesus is condemned, repents anxiously, and ultimately commits suicide.11
A fascinating and perplexing element of the Judas narrative is the “field of blood” that is purchased with the money Judas gained from betraying Jesus. Judas dumps his money on the temple floor in disgust and leaves to immediately go commit suicide. The priests and elders are unsure what should be done with this money—it was once theirs, but now it has been tainted. It is marked by sin, ill-gotten and ill-fated. Sensitive to the Deuteronomical code that forbids donations of money gained through sinful means,12 the priests are stuck with a pile of money that cannot be added to the temple coffers. For the priests to accept this money would connect the sacred with the sinful. Thus, this money had to be used for profane, or at least mundane, purposes. Their inventive solution is clever indeed: they use the blood money to purchase a blood-field, Hakeldema, a practical and religiously correct purchase for a profane place if ever there was one.13 The priests designate the field as a place of faceless burials and nameless graves, a cemetery for foreigners. Judas’s money purchases a graveyard not worthy for even the lowliest of Israelites.
There is a respect and concern over places of burial that reaches far into the mists of the earliest Hebrew religious experience. Long before subjective afterlife is a consideration, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are profoundly concerned about where they will be buried. With ceremony it is reported that in dying and being buried “Abraham was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8). The same phrase is repeated upon Isaac’s death; his passage out of life and into sacred burial is a movement into “his people” (Gen. 35:29). Jacob died insisting that his remains be carried out of Egypt; he did not wish for his body to reside in a foreign land, no matter how friendly and inviting the Egyptians might seem. “I am about to be gathered to my people,” said Jacob, sensing his immanent death, “Bury me with my ancestors—in the cave [. . .] that Abraham bought [. . . .] There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah” (Gen. 49:29-33). David “slept with his ancestors,” as did his son Solomon (1 Kings 2:10, 11:43). To die and be buried in exile, or even worse, to lie unburied on the ground, is a great terror to the ancient Israelite. One fails to understand the power of Ezekiel’s “valley of the dry bones” passage without understanding the horror of bones lying in the empty and heartless fields of Babylon, far from their proper resting place (Ezek. 37). To decompose unattended in a field somewhere? This is terrible indeed. It is a denial of rest, a cursed eternity of wandering and loneliness, a permanent banishment.
So it is not an exaggeration to suggest that a graveyard for foreigners would be the most banal and profane of locations. Even Jewish criminals deserved better than to be buried in Judas’s nightmarish Hakeldema. The name “field of blood” evokes images of lasting bloodstains on this land. But this place is bloody in a different manner than an old battlefield, where violent death takes its place in a broader spectrum of meaning, where soldiers die nobly (at least sometimes), where casualties of war die in defense of (or offense on) land and family. But when a foreigner dies, the death happens far from family and historical burial grounds. No one remains to carry corpses to sacred tombs or provide proper funerals. Judas’s legacy is a sad, empty, meaningless, and profane graveyard.
Hakeldema is the wasteland of broken and forgotten meaning; it is an alien, bloody, monstrous place devoid of comfort and familiarity. This word epitomizes solitude and separation from the community. What better marker for Holy Saturday’s despair? Integral to understanding spatial Hakeldema is the temporal element to this place. Corpses are not only in a place but also a time of interminable suspension and everlasting restlessness. This is a lonely land where even in death foreigners are eternally damned to be weary, lonesome wanderers. We dare not long contemplate the loneliness of this field, or of our own graves-to-come, regardless of the proximity of ancestral tombs. To consider Hakeldema is to face the fact that death awaits us and that nothing tangible transcends the liminality of the final breath. Are we not all aliens and strangers at life’s boundary lines?
In Hakeldema we have a spatial name for the temporal Holy Saturday, which arises not as a place one might visit and leave but as a time of indeterminate length, a despair that belies no escape and offers no consolation. So I take up Hakeldema as the sad end to which untended anguish leads, the dark and permanent place of suicidal anxiety. It is at the border of this wasteland that we are pressed to speak, even knowing that speech will not suffice. It is at this point of speech-defying lament that the Platonic concept of khora becomes remarkably helpful.
The dialogues of Plato are legendarily enigmatic, especially in the way he moves characters in and around his dialogues, speaking like a ventriloquist through one voice or another, seldom committing his signature to any of them.14 Picking up the Timaeus, one cannot be entirely sure who is doing the speaking—Timaeus dominates the dialogue, but does he speak for Plato? Perhaps Timaeus reveals a questioning or an unraveling of the monolithic Platonic metaphysical systems that some interpreters have developed out of Plato’s more famous discussions.15 We are left to wonder. However, if nothing else, a few brief but complex passages within the Timaeus offer an unmistakable subversion of Plato’s typical appeal to transcendence as a means of securing meaning amid the tumult of ephemeral creaturely existence.
The introduction of the term khora occurs as the conversation in the Timaeus turns to the familiar Platonic question of origins. Timaeus has come to dominate the dialogue, delivering an extended monologue that struggles to make sense of the possibility of there being a world.16 In attempting to describe the milieu or venue upon which creation comes to be, Timaeus invokes the term khora, a rather commonplace Greek term meaning something like the English word receptacle. However, it quickly becomes apparent that khora resembles a clay receptacle in name only; as Timaeus attempts to describe how khora makes the world possible, his words spin off into language that Richard Kearney calls “hermeneutic poetics.”17 We are neither able to speak well nor remain silent. We must speak, and yet nothing of our speech is everlasting. The boldest of our words glow, perhaps brilliantly, for a brief time before fading from relevance. Our words revert to mere sounds. Into this desperate void, constructive philosophy and theology are furtive; in sparks and spurts they move forward, only to be frustrated by the temporality and relativity of language itself. This poetic philosophy is different from Plato’s more concrete metaphysical musings in both tone and manner, but it addresses some of the same fundamental questions. As Timaeus engages in imaginative philosophical discourse, he creates a litany of metaphors, each clearly trying to name something that evades articulation. Khora is nurse, impressionable wax, perfume base, the mother of all things.
Standard Platonic metaphysics allows the corporeal realm to be influenced by the realm of the forms or ideas (eidos) so that all people and events occurring within the physical world are more or less anchored in the eternal forms.18 Physical manifestations are but fragmentary and limited reflections of these forms, which lie above the world in transcendent splendor. The question that lies unanswered and that perhaps troubles the mature Plato who pens the Timaeus is of forum—what receives the impression of these pure forms? What allows for the existence of the incomplete and transient world of sensory experience? Elsewhere, in the Republic particularly, the emphasis is clearly on the deployment of Plato’s landmark conception of the transcendent eidos.19 Now, in the Timaeus, which scholars consistently place much later than the Republic,20 Plato’s poetic hand begins to betray a fundamental philosophical inadequacy in the grand and transcendent metaphysical system that dominates elsewhere. This sense can be ascertained by the self-reflective language of Timaeus. Form and impression, the binary system by which Plato set up his cosmology, “sufficed for the former discussion” but now appear insufficient. Timaeus suggests that “the argument seems to require that we should set forth in words another kind, which is difficult of explanation and dimly seen.”21 It is no stretch to conclude that the volatility of khora destabilizes Plato’s overall system.22 Plato has addressed sticks and stones as exemplars of higher and better forms, but he has found no helpful correlative term for the matrix upon which sticks drift and stones make their impression. An accessible language to describe the milieu within which Plato’s metaphysical game may unfold is missing.
Derrida takes interest in khora because he sees it as a subtle indication that philosophy is, in the words of Caputo, “in real trouble here.”23 As the mature Plato stands back from the very useful and dynamic system he has spent a career constructing, he perhaps pauses and wonders at the stage on which this drama unfolds. It is a fleeting reflection, no doubt, and is only expressed through the mouthpiece of Timaeus. Still, insufficient attention has been given to the manner in which khora subverts and calls into question the very enterprise that passes for Platonic metaphysics.
Caputo notes that by introducing the concept of khora, Plato has affirmed, or perhaps conceded, an embarrassing quandary in which philosophy finds itself. According to Caputo, khora “mocks the prestigious, fatherly, originary, truth-making power” of Plato’s transcendent forms.24 But why focus on this mockery of meaning and truth-making? What good might come of making so much noise out of a few passages in one obscure Platonic dialogue? A number of contemporary thinkers have found a great deal of benefit in this extrapolation of Timaeus’ comments. Khora has become a “surname” for Derridean deconstruction, a profound psychoanalytic concept in the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, and an opening for ethical and eschatological theology in the work of Richard Kearney.25 A growing number of philosophers and theologians are finding in this concept a means of addressing “the pre-original abyss each of us encounters in fear and trembling when faced with the bottomless void of our existence.”26 Khora erodes and effaces the most precious and concrete of meanings; it defaces our favorite words and concepts; it disgusts and threatens and alienates us, for it calls into question all that is steady and comfortable. But at that liminal boundary, where symbols shatter like glass, we can finally find a way to speak of the unspeakable, evasive as it may be. And that word, which calls into question words themselves, is khora.
Have I digressed from discussion of Holy Saturday and Judas’s Hakeldema? I believe not. Khora is the time/place where concrete meanings and foundations dissolve; it is when we discover the terror of the stranger within ourselves, when we face the clammy realization that the light we believed was at the end of the tunnel is a mirage. So I take up khora as the time/place of lonely despair within human hearts, the cold realization that our knowledge is unreliable, particularly our knowledge of ourselves.
We may never know Judas’s motives, but Matthew takes care to describe Judas’s great reversal from snide betrayal to heartfelt remorse. The feeling that washes over Judas at the moment of that reversal is the paradigmatic Holy Saturday moment. It is a moment in which even words become meaningless, a moment of khora-despair. Saturday is terrifying, but like the deep and chaotic waters of Genesis 1, this abyss is also “pregnant” with possibility.27 So it is in these moments of Judas’s khora that the road forks. One road leads to the endless khora-despair of Hakeldema; the other road leads to the khora-womb of the community, to the faces of fellow travelers who have seized onto an eschatological hope unfettered by the limits of human possibility. Judas’s fate is in the hands of the Sabbath-keeping community.
Not long after the time of Plato, an Israelite preacher whose name is lost to us struggled with the terror of realizing the absolutely fleeting nature of all existent things. Calling it hebel, meaning “vanity” or “vapor,” this man, the author of Ecclesiastes, struggled to come to terms with the futility of all meaning. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote that wisdom and folly arrive together at sheol (the grave). He suggested that our attempts to create meaning and forge permanence in a world that dances just above the abyss of death are vain. So the destabilization of khora is no stranger to Hebraic thought. But for Christians, has Jesus reversed the despair of Ecclesiastes? Or has the passion of Christ made such an experience holy?
The Church on the Seventh Day
People have never known quite what to do with their Sabbaths. The six days of activity that precede each day of rest set a pattern that is difficult to break. The obsession of some first-century Jews with Sabbath regulations is evident in the multiple charges brought against Jesus for Sabbath-day infractions.28 To heal, infer Jesus’s hypertechnical opponents, is an active vocation, unsuitable to Sabbath regulations. Making and mending together belong to days one through six—healing is just too active, too transformative, too world-altering to occur on a day that is meant to be characterized by quiet reflection, thoughtful liturgy, and rest.
In shifting liturgy and rest from the seventh to the eighth day of creation, Christians unknowingly removed a critical element of Sabbath celebration. Lost in translation is a small but significant aspect of Sabbatical commemoration: divine inactivity. The eighth day is really a revitalization of the first day of creation, bearing more resemblance to “let there be light” than “let there be rest.”29 And integral to the Jewish Sabbath is inactivity. For strict or ascetic Jews, such as the Essenes, even lighting fires and beginning journeys was prohibited.30 But Easter Sunday is exactly the opposite; it is an ignited fire and a journey begun.31 This makes resurrection a very appropriate Sunday (first/eighth day) event. If Jesus had been raised on Saturday it would have been an example of God violating the fourth commandment. The Christian passion story honors the Jewish Sabbath, reversing the Pharisaic concern that Jesus is a violator of this sacred day.
But how does the resurrection make Holy Saturday holy? How is this Sabbath sanctified by resurrection Sunday? We cannot understand the eighth day of creation without first exploring how the Christian story incorporates and blesses seventh-day silence and inactivity. And because the ethical questions of Sabbath observance move beyond matters of personal purity to more pervasive communal concerns, Sabbath is richly social. The “day of rest” is celebrated in ecclesial fashion, in households, synagogues, and sanctuaries. Honoring the Sabbath is about actively creating time for the people of the community to face one another.
At this point, I offer a general charge against Christianity for its failure to honor the fourth commandment, for our failure to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. We have, I fear, turned our back on the khora in which so many humans dwell. The rush-to-Sunday is a rush to action, a rush to tangible hope, a rush to foreseeable victories and palpable redemption. But the resurrected Jesus offers no such reversal of Saturday’s uncertainty. The resurrected Jesus moves mysteriously among the disciples, moving through walls, disappearing from tables and rising into the sky. The resurrected Christ is no resuscitated corpse; he is both less and more than this. Jesus is raised into the eschatological future, beckoning the Christian community into a future that evades our attempts to discern and anticipate. Jesus is resurrected into a divine future (eschaton), a future outside of human possibility. Inasmuch as Holy Saturday represents the death of tangible and predictable hopes, it remains today in full force. In fact, this death is sanctified by Easter Sunday. It is right and good that the false messianic hopes of the disciples remain dead and defeated. There is a lesson that the church must learn, a lesson evident at the Emmaus table, in the upper room, at the ascension, and elsewhere. The resurrected Jesus has now danced beyond the grasp of the disciples, moved below and above the realm of human expectation and possibility. Easter Sunday should cast the church into the eschatological future, insisting that the people of God live toward such a future, as unreasonable and irrational as such hope may be.
When we allow Easter to nullify Saturday we miss the blessed finality with which our Friday dreams must be shattered in order for our future to be truly divine. Easter is no Hegelian synthesis of the incarnation and the crucifixion. As a church of the eighth day, we are to be a people who have been rightly robbed of our desire to see suffering, sorrow, abuse, and death have tangible payoffs. What we learn from khora and Holy Saturday is not overturned on Sunday but given sacred confirmation and eschatological transformation. It is, in fact, a profanation of Saturday to ignore its significance or to allow its khoratic character to be overlooked and ignored. This Saturday, like every Jewish Sabbath, is anything but profane. It is blessed, sanctified, to be kept holy.
Sabbath Violations: “What is that to us?”
Judas is failed in at least two ways following his change of heart: first, by the priests from whom he seeks absolution, and second, by the community of disciples that fails to situate themselves between Judas’s khora-despair and his Hakeldema. In both cases, Judas is left alone to deal with his despair. The starkest denial of community comes at the hands of the priests. They may, in fact, have delivered a message to Judas that was of deeper cause for despair than even his ghastly betrayal of Jesus. Judas comes refunding the blood money he had received for betraying Jesus, and his request for absolution is not entirely unreasonable—he does not come to the priests asking that they find a way to reverse his sin and turn Jesus loose. By appearing again at the temple, Judas is confronting the terror of his private khora, and for help in this confrontation, he turns to the priests. Their response to Judas is nothing short of a death sentence. Seeking forgiveness and confessing his sin to these religious leaders, Judas hears in reply: “What is that to us? See to it yourself” (Matt. 27:4).
If Judas is to find forgiveness and absolution, he is told to find it within the context of his own life, amid the rubble of his private khora. He must move on alone, with no face of love to call him out of a fixation on his despicable failure. Judas came to the priests to save his life, perhaps as a final attempt to rescue a future, however bleak. But Judas is turned away by the coldest and most heartless words of Matthew’s gospel. Do you seek a future for your broken, guilty life? “See to it yourself.” Are you dwelling in that dark and silent place where there is truly no hope in sight? “What is that to us?” Has there been a more egregious Sabbath violation than this? Judas is lost in khora and his religious guides turn his sorrow back upon itself, perhaps redoubling his loneliness and desperation. We need not even stretch this text to see the inextricable connection between the response of the priests and Judas’ suicide. The blood of Judas stains the hands of the priests who refused to honor the sanctity of the Sabbatical community. To honor the Sabbath and keep it holy is to refuse to profane Sabbath pain. Using Judas’s money to purchase the graveyard for foreigners accurately illustrates their profanation of Judas’ sacred khora; they turn an opportunity for Saturday healing into Hakeldema. Consistent with the Pharisaic concern against Saturday healing, they refuse to raise even a finger of hospitality to Judas’ sincere request for absolution.
We might be tempted to read a Sartrian or Heideggarian existential crisis into Judas’s despair. But this individualistic (and anachronistic) reading cheapens and overlooks what is really at stake as Judas moves between the temple and the noose. Judas’s walk to Hakeldema is indeed a walk (perhaps a run) of existential despair. Suicide is a lonely and solitary act, and despite our inability to access Judas’s private pain and personal crisis, we should not look past the experience of this individual. But what is also noteworthy about this Sabbath walk is that the fractured community of disciples fails to take account of their missing brother. One can speculate that they are perhaps angry with Judas, fuming at his betrayal, and now consider him to be a dangerous alien, a monstrosity, an outsider. Peter and the other scattered disciples (except perhaps the faithful women who follow Jesus all the way to the tomb) appear to be absorbed in their own disappointments and failures. They are too self-absorbed to stand between Judas and his noose. Some of them may have clung together after Jesus died, but did any of them give a second thought about Judas? Is his sin beyond the reach of the disciple’s forgiveness?
The fragmentation of the community on Sabbath represents another violation of the fourth commandment. The disciples ignore their repentant and sorrowful brother. Like the priest and elders, Judas’s friends fail him miserably. His suicide happens because no one has offered him a future; there is no communal Sabbath respite for his lonely and solitary despair. The pathways to forgiveness and life have been sealed off; he has been told to seek his own redemption and the chasm of khora opens up beneath him. Without the priests, without his friends, Judas chooses suicide. No face of Christ stood between Judas’s khora and his Hakeldema. No sacred Sabbatical bread or wine was extended to a man starving for lack of a future. The Eucharist is the meal of the eschaton, the womb of khora, the presence of the broken Christ in the midst of a broken world, but to Judas the table was closed.
If we overlook Holy Saturday, with all of its despair, we choose to ignore the deepest level of God’s Triune movement in the world. Gregory of Nazianzus famously argued that what Christ has “not assumed, he has not healed.”32 A failure to dwell within the khora of human existence is a general failure of the church not unlike the failures of the priest and the disciples. Must those who seek hope in Christ first “see to it” themselves? Must the community wait until the despairing and lonely faces of Judas humbly turn to the church for hope? The inactivity of the Sabbath ought never to be confused with passivity. The church is inactive on Sabbath for the purpose of looking into one another’s faces. Sabbatical rest is about finding unreasonable hope as a community marked by God. When our Judases are missing, we should be scrambling to find them. The church of the crucified and resurrected Christ belongs on the border of Hakeldema, offering the grace of the khora-womb to those lost in khora-despair.
Within the body of Hebrew Scripture and Jewish Midrash, much attention is given to Sabbath observance, and the seeds of this thought are found in a few short lines on the tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8-11). Here, in its most abbreviated form, the Sabbath directive pauses to consider an unlikely recipient of Sabbath rest: foreigners. After requiring rest for children, slaves, and livestock, the commandment reaches an even more astounding nadir: even aliens are to be given rest on this day. Aliens were at this point in Israel’s history by definition foreign to the worship of Yahweh. Yet the sanctity of Saturday apparently knows no exemption. All Sabbath rest is holy. There can be no Hakeldema where bodies and souls must dwell in endless unrest. Israel is to provide a hospitable khora for Saturday rest, even to those who are hostile to the worship of Yahweh. Children, slaves, livestock, and foreigners are at the mercy of the community; they are only given rest when a space/time is created for such shalom (peace). The failure to provide space for Sabbath shalom is a fundamental failure to abide by the fourth commandment. There can be no places of banishment outside of the reach of this holy day; Hakeldema is Sabbath violation. The church should be a sanctified khora for the world; this is how the people of Christ must honor the fourth commandment. This irrational and other-centered love is the marker of Christian Holy Sabbath observance.
Not incidentally, when describing Hakeldema, Matthew points back to the story of Jeremiah’s rather irrational purchase of a potter’s field. Facing the impending doom of invasion, Jeremiah foolishly buys property that is likely to soon be stripped from him. Recorded in Jeremiah 32 is the most elaborately described financial transaction in the Bible, a resounding statement of hope even within the context of Jeremiah’s pessimistic message. This “potter’s field” is the opposite of Hakeldema; it is a “field of hope” established against all reasonable expectation of deliverance. Jeremiah’s “field at Anathoth” is the locus of eschatological hope, a promise of redemption despite the impending Babylonian conquest. Jeremiah purchases this field like a child making a sandcastle in front of the rising tide. It is beautiful and senseless, hopeful in a manner that cannot be quantified in human terms.
Holy Saturday reverses the loneliness of Hakeldema; it fills the khoratic chasm. This abyss is occupied not by permanent meaning or anticipated victories but by faces, by cruciform concern for the other, by love. Humans must learn to gaze without blinking at the terror of khora. Instead of turning away into lonely despair, we must turn to one another, finding Christ in the Eucharistic facing of Christian liturgy and community. Khora is brutally neutral; it is a hiatus of both despair and healing. Khora is both the nurturing womb and the heartless hand of time that fades and erases the most indelible of marks. By dwelling unflinchingly in the stark reality of khora, the church can hollow and hallow a time for the healing of the world. Neutral khora becomes holy in the hands of the resurrected Christ, most tangibly in the hands of Christians who break bread and together offer a divine future to a despairing world.
Critical to the life of Christian Sabbath is the turn toward the future, an element absent in Plato’s khora and Judas’s Hakeldema, though it is hinted at in Jeremiah’s bold purchase of the “field at Anathoth” (Jer. 32:7-8). The Eucharistic community celebrates a meal that casts its gaze beyond the hopelessness and meaninglessness of the now and into a future that is by its divine character evasive. Suicide, Judas’s or otherwise, is the death of futurity; it is the abysmal end to hope. Christian faces, faces seized by the eschatological hope of the resurrected Christ, offer a particularly pressing gift to a lonely and suicidal world. Christian hope offers a future to the despondent, without patronizingly manufacturing that hope out of human expectation. I fear that too often we close off the channels of grace and healing by attempting to determine how Saturday’s despair will turn into Sunday’s rejoicing. In this sense, too, Sabbath is violated. How will the church respond to the crisis of those living in brokenness, victims of trauma, those lost in the nightmare of existential anxiety? To step around these people, literally and theologically, is to transform the ambivalence of khora into the doom of Hakeldema. We are ethically bound to honor Holy Saturday and keep holy, to refuse the temptation to ignore khora’s abyss, and to see how God turns fields of blood into fields of hope.
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1. Bruce Metzger and Roland Murphy, eds., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991). Unless otherwise noted, all biblical references are from the NRSV translation.
2. Plato, The Timaeus, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 48e-53c.
3. The Greek here uses the word ????????????, literally “having regretted (it).”
4. This narrative is found in Matthew 27:3-10.
5. In recent decades, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Alan Lewis, Shelley Rambo, and others have begun to recognize that Christianity has suffered from ignoring this shadowy day. Neither is my technical exploration of khora particularly unique. Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, John Caputo, Richard Kearney, and others have already noted the puzzling way that meaning and form dissolve in this conceptual frontier. In fact, the manner in which concept of khora is developed here is intentionally and grateful patterned after the work of Richard Kearney, both through personal interactions and Kearney’s remarkable chapter on khora in Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Ideas of Otherness (London, UK: Routledge, 2002).
6. A noteworthy and fascinating exception should be noted: in a profound theological move, the Book of Common Prayer prohibits the celebration of Eucharist on Holy Saturday. There are also some rich uses of Holy Saturday in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which will be explored in a more expanded version of this paper. See Charles Mortimer Guilbert, custodian, The Book of Common Prayer: According to the use of the Episcopalian Church (New York, NY: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 283.
7. Many theologians have recognized this. See Alan Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001); Shelly Rambo, Divine Love and Human Trauma: Reading the Middle Day (Unpublished doctoral dissertation for Emory University, 2004); Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World (Edinburgh, UK: Ignatius Press, 1980).
8. Rambo, Divine Love and Human Trauma, 1-15.
9. The Lukan and Matthean authors both use the same word for the field in question, Hakeldema, and this name apparently stuck to the piece of land, as Matthew claims that it is still called Hakeldema “to this day” (Matt. 27:8). But the Lukan and Matthean authors offer differing accounts of how the field was purchased and the manner of Judas’s suicide. In Mark, Luke, and John, Judas just disappears from the narrative. Matthew befriends the character of Judas, at least somewhat—having served his explicit purpose of delivering Jesus into the hands of the chief priests and elders, Judas becomes expendable. The Lukan voice makes mention of Judas’s demise in Acts 1, but the mention is clearly parenthetical, as most English translations indicate with literal parentheses around the comment. Luke makes no pretense to understand or describe Judas’s postbetrayal experience.
10. Matthew 26:24. Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9.
11. Certainly this is more ambiguous and nuanced than Luke’s attribution of Judas’s betrayal to possession by Satan in Luke 22:3.
12. Deuteronomy 23:18; here the ill-gotten gains are from prostitution.
13. Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995), 813.
14. John Sallis, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus (Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 1999), 1. Here Sallis refers to the complicated Platonic practice “of ventriloquy.” The point is that it is possible (perhaps likely) that Plato does not intend the comments of Timaeus to reflect his own voice.
15. Plato, Timaeus, 48e-49a.
16. Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters, 193.
17. Khora is only addressable through a kind of “hermeneutics of imagination” (see Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, 194), a poetry of faithfulness, a foolish speech uttered out of the dumbfounding human conundrum in which we find ourselves.
18. Sallis, Chorology, 12-17.
19. Jacques Derrida, On the Name (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 120.
20. Ibid. This is despite allusions in the beginning of Timaeus that suggest that this dialogue begins the day after Republic ends.
21. Plato, Timaeus, 48e; 49a.
22. John Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell (New York, NY: Fordham, 1997), 99.
25. Derrida, On the Name, 89-130; Julia Kristeva, Revolutions in Poetic Language (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1984); Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985); Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters, 191-211. See also Caputo’s Deconstruction in a Nutshell and The Prayers and Tears of Jacque Derrida (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997).
26. Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, 204.
28. In Luke 5:27-32, Jesus and his disciples are twice accused of Sabbath transgressions, though it is unlikely that these events would have been seen as offensive to the vast majority of first-century Jews.
29. Genesis 1:2; the second quotation is a paraphrase of Leviticus 25 and other Sabbatical commandments.
30. Waston E. Mills, ed., “Sabbath” and “Essense,” in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1990).
31. This is quite literally the case in the liturgy of the ignited Paschal candle, common in Christian Holy Saturday vigils and particular Easter Sunday liturgies.
32. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).
Eric R. Severson
Eric Severson is Associate Professor of ethics and philosophy at Eastern Nazarene College. He is the editor of The Least of These: Selected Readings in Christian History and author of several articles and chapters on ethics, theology, and philosophy.