Holy Saturday may have come and gone, but its meaning and importance remain ever with us. This moving piece was written by John Alexander.

My friend Dave died in a car accident in 2007. The ten-year anniversary of his death roughly coincides with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction of Pearl Jam, a band that is inseparable from Dave’s life and times. Their debut album Ten recently turned 25 years old (the Hall of Fame’s minimum age requirement for a band’s nomination), which was Dave’s age when he died. Their induction ceremony was held in Brooklyn last weekend, on the eve of Holy Week.

In April 2003 Dave convinced me to join him for my first Pearl Jam concert at the Philadelphia stop of their Riot Act tour. I wasn’t interested. Pearl Jam reminded me of concert T-shirts on the backs of guys that I did not get along with in High School. Also, by 2003 I was 21 and interested in being taken seriously, which I was convinced would only happen if my musical taste was either obscure or ironic. Pearl Jam was too mainstream to be either. Dave, on the other hand, had a personal connection to the band (his childhood friend was the son of their lawyer, as I recall) and had been backstage at a dozen or more Pearl Jam concerts over the years. On that night he had a free ticket, and that is the only reason I joined him.

By the time we got off the subway and found our seats at the now-imploded Spectrum, I was not surprised that Dave had greeted a dozen past acquaintances. He was Ferris Bueller. I once mentioned his name in a bar on 15th Street and a stranger next to me yelled, “I know him!” and went on to tell me about her own hijinks with Dave. (In his own words, Dave used to say that he was the fourth most popular person in Philadelphia, right behind Iverson, McNabb and former mayor-turned-governor Ed Rendell. Yes, Dave was also proud.) That night he wore an olive military jacket and a fresh mohawk in protest of the new war in Iraq, which was not exactly the look of the crowd at large. By their second decade, Pearl Jam had left the combat boot-laden audiences of the grunge era and was drawing a multi-generational crowd, but even so, by the end of the first song, Dave was high-fiving the fans to our right — a 13-year-old and his mom — and by the end of the night’s encore I was high-fiving them, too. I ended up seeing them three times on that tour alone, and Dave was with me for all of them.

I’m not sure whether it is due to a truly acquired love of Pearl Jam’s music or to Dave’s influence, but ever since that summer I have defended my conviction that they are the greatest-ever American rock band the way that some defend their family’s honor — with more pathos than logos, and with scant consideration of the evidence.[1] Dave was not my best friend over the years (sometimes I thought everyone else in Philadelphia knew him better than I did), but he was my best friend that summer, and it was easy to love something loved by someone I loved. Four summers later, I stood by his body at the viewing.

His was not the first dead body I had seen, and I have since presided over funerals of others who have died young. But Dave’s viewing remains my archetype of the beloved friend-sibling-child cut down in the prime of life, and of the family managing somehow to stay vertical alongside the body while others stream past with hugs and handshakes saying how much the deceased meant to them. I carry a few frozen images from that day, but one stands above the rest.

I still see his two younger suited brothers in the receiving line, exiting now and then to catch their breath and then returning to shake hands alongside their parents. I remember how openly they wept, one of them in particular, but this is not the primary image that has stayed with me. Neither is it the image of Dave’s father, who wrapped up every blessed stranger in that procession with a bear hug, told them he knew them if he did and from where, and thanked them for coming. All this he did with sincerity even though it was also a kind of show, and I am sure that sometime later that afternoon he curled up in a corner and wept like his remaining sons. This still moves me as well, but the most formative image from that day is that of Dave’s mother.

 From my position at the back of the receiving line she at first looked propped-up, and maybe somehow she was, though as the line moved along it became clear that no one was physically supporting her. When I finally reached the family, Dave’s mother nodded indirectly at me as one more passing guest in the long cascade, saying nothing. It struck me in that moment — surrounded by the flowers, the pictures, the hundreds of guests, the casket, the carefully prepared body itself — just how much work goes into a funeral. She was a portrait of exhaustion.

Thank God for Joseph of Arimethea, I’ve since thought. Can you imagine Mary having to make arrangements after Friday’s ordeal? She at least had a Sabbath the day after her son’s death. This woman had clearly not received the same grace. Dave’s funeral was a week to the day after the accident, and in that time I wondered if she had seen a moment’s rest. I remember hoping that maybe the next day, finally, after that long week of gut-wrenching busyness, the whole family might together collapse into a day of rest — not into the kind of rest found at a beach or a spa, but into the rest of Holy Saturday.

Each year I need help remembering what to do with that last, incomprehensible day of Lent. Eugene Peterson has helped. He writes that on Holy Saturday we enter “into the despair of a world disappointed in its grandest hopes, entering into the emptiness of death by deliberately emptying the self of illusion and indulgence and self-importance.”[2] To sabbath (literally, “to cease”) is to take your hands off whatever control you think you have over your life. Holy Saturday reminds us that no amount of work on our part will return our loved ones, or the millions of other loved ones that are lost every day. It reminds us of all the grief that we cannot relieve, so that we might hope in the relief offered by Another.

The week of Dave’s funeral I listened exclusively to Pearl Jam, starting with Ten, their now 25-year-old first release. It is by far the band’s darkest album overall — a truly godforsaken album, a Holy Saturday album. Each track is a journey through one personal hell after another,[3] and many are based in part on actual stories. “Even Flow” is a slice-of-life narrative of a schizophrenic homeless man. “Jeremy” is about a bullied adolescent who commits suicide in front of his classmates. “Why Go” is the story of a child abandoned in a psychiatric hospital. I’ve heard the album’s anthemic first single “Alive” group sung by an entire sports team in order to get psyched before a big game, as if the refrain “I’m still alive” were a cry of vindication ending with an exclamation point. It is in fact more of a bewildered question.

But even if the album thematically resonates with Holy Saturday, the aesthetic is almost completely dissonant. Ten doesn’t rest. Even the mid-tempo and slow tracks rage, squirm or wrestle against what is gone. As far as I can tell, there is only one moment of true ceasing in the entire album. It comes in the song “Black.” Eddie Vedder sings: 

“And now my bitter hands cradle broken glass of what was everything.”

In an album that rages against all other manner of human tragedies, this is the only track about lost love, and it is the only moment in Ten when the raging stops and we are invited to simply sit and rest with the grief.

Now, “Black” may be the most well-loved song of one of the most celebrated bands of my generation (in their Hall of Fame induction speech it was the song David Letterman said was toughest to get out of his head), which means that we hear it everywhere — in waiting rooms, between innings at Phillies games, and when cars drive by with open windows. For me, it always unexpectedly brings the image of Dave’s exhausted mother cradling the “broken glass of what was everything.”

It also reminds me of the news that reached me about two years later, when I heard that Dave’s youngest brother had also died in tragic circumstances.

How do you rest on the day after the world ends? Holy Saturday is our answer. It is a day of remembering all of the grief in the world that we can do nothing to relieve. Of all of our misguided efforts to save ourselves and others, perhaps the craziest is our raging against death itself — the greatest and last of our enemies — by our own strength. Against this madness, facing the slavemasters on one side and the waters of death on the other, Moses tells the Israelites, “Stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today…the LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Ex 14:13-14). Hoping against hope, we unflex our muscles, trade our raging for stillness, and keep vigil until impossible deliverance arrives. This is the beginning of faith.

Those of us who work or walk with people who grieve — the impoverished, the bereaved, the sick, the dying, the hopelessly depressed, the addicted, the disillusioned — know the importance of acknowledging our limits when it comes to saving others. Even as we bring our gifts of relief, we remember all of the grief in the world that we can do nothing to stop. And that reminds us how to rest from our work and put our hope in the only one who can save finally and fully.

On the first Holy Saturday Jesus was dead. And yet he was already “trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” as the old Orthodox canticle proclaims. The very means of our salvation was being worked out as we wept over the perceived final victory of death. On this Holy Saturday, and on any day that we are confronted with all of the grief that we cannot relieve, may our raging submit to vigil. May we rest because of his work. May we remain still so that he can fight for us. And may we remember that although death is our greatest and final enemy, it is also the inescapable prerequisite for the realization of our greatest hope — resurrection.

[1] Still, a solid case can be made. Note that I am talking about bands, not solo artists. Consider Pearl Jam’s endurance and legacy. Aside from working through a few different drummers in their first decade, they still have the same lineup after 25 years. Next to the other 2017 inductees, four out of five ain’t bad (just ask Yes, though they’re British), especially if one of them is the frontman (just ask Journey). Also, for a band whose continuing production is pushing three decades or more, they have yet to become a parody of themselves (just ask Aerosmith). The two reasonable alternatives are the Beach Boys (whose quality and volume of production after their first decade was nothing like Pearl Jam’s) and Metallica. As for the gods of thrash, the weapon their advocates level against me is, frankly, nuclear. Metallica’s influence on latter day bands is just far greater. When was the last time you heard a respectable band say that Pearl Jam was their greatest influence? The only pushback I have is the length of Pearl Jam’s shows and their intimate connection with huge audiences. An even greater problem would arise if we consider Bruce Springsteen’s legacy as primarily the songwriter and frontman of the E-Street Band rather than as a solo artist, which increasingly I do. Finally, it is not lost on me that talking about the “best American rock band” is kind of like talking about the “best European beer.” Even though it was invented on one side of the Atlantic, the other unquestionably perfected it.

[2] Peterson, Eugene. Under the Unpredictable Plant. p. 94.

[3] The only possible exception to this is “Oceans,” the album’s seventh track and fourth single, which is wistful but not totally despairing. Still, the imagery of the waves seems to have more to do with Psalm 88:7 than with catching a righteous point break.