At Home in Lent ~ Holy Saturday: Bed
Rising from sleep
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead,” and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
Most of us slept in a bed last night, even though the idea of sleeping on or in a bed is, historically, a relatively recent phenomenon. Of course, sleeping itself is not; rather, it is a vital and necessary dimension of human well-being. There are different levels of sleep – deep sleep, wakeful sleep, rapid-eye-movement sleep – and during the various phases of a sleep cycle, we experience each of these several times. While we are asleep, we rest, we heal, we store our memories, we dream. Our heartbeats drop to their lowest rate and our consciousness shuts down. It is a kind of nightly pseudo-death, and the bed we lie in is like a temporary grave.
We must sleep. After only a few days, nothing can keep us awake, and when we are deprived of sleep we become confused, forgetful and can hallucinate. No one has gone for more than eleven days without sleep, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Sleep is a human need and, while the basic human right to sleep has never been insisted upon, to deprive someone of sleep is a cruel form of torture. Insomniacs, like King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:1), suffer terribly.
Each of us needs a different amount of sleep, depending on our age, metabolism and lifestyle. In the UK, the average national bedtime is 11.45 pm, and the average time spent in bed is seven-and-a-half hours. Allowing for time to actually fall asleep (15 minutes is normal) and wakefulness in the morning, this means that the oft-quoted norm of seven hours of sleep is borne out by the evidence. In contrast, the Saudis spend on average only five-and-a-half hours in bed, while the Norwegians sleep the longest, at an average of seven hours 39 minutes. We thus spend a significant proportion of each day asleep and, if you were to live to 93 years of age, you will have spent just over a quarter of a million hours asleep. People who sleep a lot less than seven hours each day are at higher risk of illnesses such as heart disease, and have been shown to have shorter lifespans. Our sleep is affected by the weather, air pressure, the phases of the moon, stress, our diet and how much exercise we have done.
Our ancestors slept on the floor, with animal furs, straw or hair for comfort, and each other for warmth. During Jesus’ time, the idea of a bed would have been quite strange, and the closest thing they would have known to a modern bed would have been the kind of thing found in a tomb: a raised stone surface hewn into the wall of rock, what we envisage the body of Jesus was laid on. We may think of it as a kind of bed, although it was more the other way around – any bed that looked like that would have been thought of as being like a grave.
The idea of a bed frame arrived in the Roman empire in the first century AD, so it is possible that Pontius Pilate had a bed not unlike ours today. The Romans combined the ancient Greek style of bed, called a kline (from which we get the word ‘recline’), with bed sheets and soft fabrics from the Persians. The richer you were, the better bed you had, much like today. But first-century Palestinians slept on mats, often on the roof of the house, and we might remember the story of the paralysed man who is lowered on his bed through the roof into a packed room where Jesus is speaking (Luke 5:17–26). Jesus told his disciples, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9:58). It is ironic that it was probably only after being crucified that Jesus was laid on anything that approximates what we today might call a bed.
When we lie down at night to embrace the oblivion of sound sleep, we might remember that we are going to a temporary grave. Every night, we enter a necessary small death, from which one day we may not wake. To die in one’s sleep is something many of us wish for – that, just as we do not notice our going to sleep every night, we may die, as it were, without noticing. This is not a manner of dying that everyone experiences: so often our dying days involve struggle, pain, distress and delay, such that when death comes, it seems like a release into eternal sleep.
Yet death is not eternal sleep. Bodily functions cease – it can take less than a minute for our bodies to shut down irrevocably – and even though some people have fought legal cases and paid a fortune for their bodies to be cryogenically frozen, this is not the way to think of resurrection, revivification or bodily rejuvenation. It is natural to sleep at night, and it is natural to die, but these are not the same thing. Shakespeare’s Prospero says that ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’ (The Tempest, IV.i), and it is true that nowadays many of us are born in a bed and hope to die in a bed.
Death has been conquered by the death and resurrection of Christ. The grave has no victory after the rising of Christ, and the bed of death is a temporary place of short and welcome sleep, from which we look forward to waking in fulfilled resurrection hope. The bed of death is no more a threat to us than the bed of daily sleep. Every night, we go to our temporary graves, dying a little death and waking in the morning refreshed and renewed to enter again into the new life God has given us. Every day and night, we have a foretaste of what is in store for us all when it comes to the greater death and the greater resurrection. Remember that, when you lay down your head tonight and when you arise in the morning, and remember that every day is Easter Day!
O Lord, on Easter Day you emptied the bed of death and walked free in the light of redemption, freedom and hope. As we lie down to sleep tonight, may we wake to the renewing light of the Easter dawn. Amen
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield.
Please note this text is copyright © BRF, Oxford, 2018