HOLY WEEK IN A TIME OF COVID-19

HOLY WEEK IN A TIME OF COVID-19 April 2, 2020

This year Holy Week seems only too real. There is no faux suffering or abandonment to conjure up. No experiences of conflict to imagine. No encounters with religious and political powers and principalities we need to simulate. We are in the center of a maelstrom of uncertainty. The Pandemic has put everything in doubt. We have fled to our catacombs, sheltering in place, to avoid danger. Our churches are shuttered and worship services are virtual, and our re-opening days have been rescheduled and will likely be rescheduled again. Wild and foolish talk has come from megachurch pastors, putting communities at risk and wanting to hold worship at any cost. Political leadership is ambiguous at best.

Holy Week is a lifetime in miniature. Just as our time with the pandemic is a lifetime in miniature. The past six weeks have changed everything, and there are more changes ahead of us. Holy Week goes from celebration to conflict, betrayal, suspense, and then back to a celebration that lasts a lifetime. As the commercial says, “life comes at you fast,” and so does Holy Week along with the constantly updated death tolls and hopes for vaccines and cures.

We almost need a month to let the events of Holy Week sink in spiritually and emotionally just as we need to let the reality of COVID-19 sink in. When everything seems to be going well in your life, out of the blue, you or a loved one receives the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, or a pandemic coming apparently out of nowhere. Without warning, you lose your job and wonder how you’ll ever reclaim your former professional or economic status. With little advance notice, we choose to close our church doors and wonder what church will be like when we gather in the sanctuary once more. We are in

Holy Week nationally and congregationally and we will all eventually live a Holy Week as the normal is turned upside down.

In his discussion of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann describes the rhythm of our lives in terms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation, all of which occur during that first Holy Week. It is easy to go from waving palms and shouting “Hosanna” to singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!” without taking account of religious conflict, betrayal, injustice, agony, and hopelessness that accompany our Easter celebrations.

Holy Week – like our current maelstrom – can forever change us if we embrace the seasons of the week and the seasons of our lives, both the sunshine and the shadow and the celebration and desolation. Life’s greatest challenges can also be the womb of life’s greatest possibilities, even in a time of pandemic.

Up until this year, most congregations join both palms and passion on what was traditionally called Palm Sunday. The rationale is that we won’t skip over the pain of betrayal of Maundy Thursday and the abandonment of Good Friday on our way to Easter. While this practice reflects liturgical and theological wisdom, often celebration gets lost among the extensive passion readings of Palm/Passion Sunday. We won’t have trouble thinking of the Passion this year! Palm Sunday begins with celebration.

A spiritual practice for Palm Sunday might involve praying your “hosannas” and joys. Take time to shout, dance, wave some palms, and give thanks for God’s witnesses in your life. Let your body and spirit together worship God. Let this be a day of celebration despite the ambiguities and conflicts of life. There will be enough time for suffering later in the Holy Week, and we are experiencing enough suffering and uncertainty right now. (For more guidance on pastoral wellbeing, see Bruce Epperly, A CENTER IN THE CYCLONE; 21ST CENTURY CLERGY SELF-CARE.)

The next moment of Holy Week involves Jesus’ conflict with religious and governmental authorities. Jesus “occupies the Temple,” tossing out the vendors who make religion a mercantile enterprise. Monday through Wednesday of Holy Week provide opportunities for spiritual examination, focusing on questions such as: From what unjust structures do you personally benefit? Where do you participate in practices that go against the gospel mandates of justice and inclusion? Where do religious structures profit from manipulating simple believers? Where does our nation need to mend its ways to be faithful to God? Where are we still practicing injustice in this time of pandemic? Imaginatively speaking, what booths might Jesus overturn in contemporary situation?

Maundy Thursday joins memory, hope, and Eucharist with experiences of betrayal and abandonment. Maundy Thursday invites us to live eucharistically as we remember God’s action in history and our lives and live hopefully toward the future as we recall the tragedies of life. The day invites us to consider the power of life’s shadows to threaten human well-being. Once again, we don’t need much imagination as we shelter in place, worshipping at a safe physical distance? If Christ can be abandoned, then which of us is safe from destitution and abandonment? If Jesus’ closest male followers abandon him, where are we abandoning Jesus’ way by our lifestyles and values? In what ways can we deepen and strengthen our spiritual stature so that we can be awake and faithful in the time of trial? In a world in which many are abandoned, who are we called to embrace and welcome? How can we be faithful while sheltering in place and dreading the next death count and worrying about our own wellbeing?

There is really nothing “good” about Good Friday! It is a day of unmitigated suffering and alienation. But, it is also the day in which we proclaim the message of the hymn, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” We have to ask ourselves where we would be when Jesus was crucified. Would we be among the jeering crowds? The faithful women? Or, the cowardly disciples? Will we be faithful in this time of personal, relational, and national challenge?

After reading the Good Friday scriptures, take some time for stillness. Then imagine the scene at Calvary. Visualize yourself among those who were witnesses to the crucifixion. What is the environment? Who is present around the Cross? What is Jesus’ appearance? Does he say anything or respond in a particular way to what’s going on? Where are you in the scene? How do feel as you witness the crucifixion? How do we respond to those struggling with the coronavirus?

Holy Saturday is the day of uncertainty and suspense. There is no promise of a happy ending. Embracing the wisdom of Holy Saturday invites us to consider the following: What is unresolved spiritually in your life? What are the forces of death that constrict your life? Where are you awaiting a resurrection? Where do you need to experience God’s new life? How do we live out our own personal Holy Saturday, uncertain of our future, the social order, our congregations, and the nation?

This Holy Week can touch us in new ways if we open our hearts and minds. We can walk the way of the cross of Jesus as we pray the daily news, embrace our own uncertainty, and open our hearts to the pain of others, trusting that God is with us in the journey.

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Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC; GODONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET; and A CENTER IN THE CYCLONE: 21ST CENTURY CLERGY SELF-CARE.

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