This evening we pause between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, between the darkness and the light, between the life of Christ on earth and His life in heaven. There is a short poem by the American poet, Robert Frost who died in 1963 that I think captures the ambiguity—the different meanings—of this night. Robert Frost was not thinking of Jesus Christ when he wrote the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but I think he helps us to come inside the meaning of this Great and Holy Saturday. Frost wrote:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
How then might this poem be part of our Great and Holy Saturday? All the “woods” of life—all our problems and hopes—are known by Christ. He lives in every “house,” in every “village” and town and city, But Christ does not “stop” on Holy Saturday as we “fill up” with sorrow for the Crucifixion, just as Robert Frost watched “his woods fill up with snow.” It is indeed “the darkest evening of the year;” and we have every right, just like the “little horse”—and the apostles—“to ask if there is some mistake.” We too puzzle over how to behave in between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when there are no markers “near” in the midst of the darkness. But Christ continues on His way to tomorrow, to Pascha—to the passing over from death to life, from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection.
Our own personal “woods,”—the problems and hopes of our lives—can often be “dark and deep.” Yet Christ knew that He had “promises to keep” and work to do here on earth before He went to heaven. Those promises that Christ was determined to keep were to each of us, as the reading from the sixth chapter of the book of Romans, that we have just heard, makes clear.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For He who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again [because] death no longer has dominion over Him. The death that He died to sin [was] once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
The Church Fathers, reflecting on this passage from Romans, guide us into a beautiful understanding of how our own lives and deaths are linked together in a unity with the life and death of Christ. St John Chrysostom preached simply and profoundly, and I quote: “What the cross and burial were to Christ, baptism is to us, though not in all respects. For Christ died and was buried in the flesh, whereas we have died and been buried to sin.” St Augustine expressed the same idea: “To be baptised into the death of Christ is nothing else but to die to sin, just as He died in the flesh.”
Therefore, precisely because we have “died to sin,” we can be deeply encouraged that we will leave behind this “darkest evening of the year” tonight. A final word comes from a fourth century teacher, Origen:
Christ rose from the dead by the glory of the Father, and if we have died to sin and are buried together with Christ … we shall rightly be said to have risen with Christ by the glory of the Father so that we may walk in newness of life…. The spiritual principle (is, preached Origen,) that as long as we are making progress we may be said to be walking [in newness of life] … [because] those who are making progress will eventually come to the place [where] they ought to be.
Tonight then let us remember that we will not “stop” in these “woods” of sorrow in the midst of darkness, but rather we can rejoice together that we are each “making progress” to “come to the place” where we seek to be—in heaven with Christ.