Sabbatum Sanctum

11 April 2009

durer_harrowing

The events and images of Holy Saturday never had the currency of the festivals immediately preceding and following, Good Friday and Easter. At least, this was the case in my experience. There are no doubt traditions in which Holy Saturday plays a prominent role, and we know that the Harrowing of Hell was an important point of reference for the Middle Ages. Even the Last Supper of relatively little commemorated Maundy Thursday of Holy Week is better known than the Harrowing or Hell or the Descent into Limbo, which may well be a consequence of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, which latter appeals more to contemporary taste than the many medieval representations of Christ doing battle in Hell like a Knight. One ought not to underestimate the possibility that art can alter the course of history.

Wikipedia simply notes regarding Holy Saturday, “This day commemorates the day that Jesus Christ’s body lay in the tomb.” The celebration of such a non-event wouldn’t amount to much, but while Christ’s body lay in the tomb, Christ was busy descending into Hell (or Limbo, or the Underworld, depending on the details of a given theological doctrine). Perhaps the obvious resemblance of this passage through the underworld to elements of pagan mythology led to the relative neglect of Holy Saturday. An early Christianity which wanted to differentiate itself from Mithraism and other contemporaneous mystery religions would have wanted to focus on the most distinctive Christian symbols and events, even while exapting whatever ancient institutions lent themselves to Christian use.


These Holy Week meditations on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday have led me to think about the status and relevance of saints in the modern world. This subject has been addressed in the book Saints and Postmodernism, and probably many others. Today I will content myself with a brief remark by way of definition.

In the institutional or formal sense, sainthood is precisely defined. But the institutions that have defined sainthood, while once the central forces of the Western tradition, no longer hold that place. The idea of a saint has passed over into ordinary language and has largely lost its explicitly formal meaning that it has in the context of institutionalized churches. We tend to speak of anyone as a “saint” when they act in an altruistic manner.

Recently in my Addendum to “Technical Ecstasy” I suggested that even when individuals reject the idea of homo economicus and insist upon an emotional self-interpretation of their actions, it usually requires no great effort to see this explanation as a superficial gloss on a more plausible explanation of self-interest.

When I consider all the various people I have known, I see people consistently and systematically pursuing their rational self-interest, but I can just as easily imagine someone else of a distinct temperament looking at the same ensemble of individuals and taking them to exemplify anything but rational self-interest. But there are limits to the interpretation of behavior.

Perhaps it would be better to say that there ought to be limits on the interpretation of behavior, for if there are no limits we would find ourselves in a situation in which anything can mean anything (a slogan sometimes invoked against deconstructionists). If there are limits to the plausible interpretation of self-interest, and that contemporary conceptions of homo economicus or homo faber or homo industrialis embody the definition of man in terms of his self-interest, we may define the saint in the Industrial Age as the individual who does not embody rational self-interest and whose behavior cannot plausibly be interpreted according to the norms of homo economicus.


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