Holy Week in a Time of Pandemic
by Bruce Epperly
As we face our second Holy Week in a time of COVID, we struggle with the juxtaposition of lament and hope, and grief and gratitude. Responsible congregations are still curtailing worship services either to outdoor venues, safe distancing and temperature taking, and zoom. It IS less than a week until Easter and our congregation’s leadership is still debating whether to have the traditional Beach.
Sunrise Service, balancing vaccinations with a spike in COVID on Cape Cod, where we live. With the future uncertain, we can easily affirm that the process is the reality and hope for the emergence of provocative possibilities for personal and national transformation.
Once again, Holy Week seems only too embodied and real. With over 500,00 deaths, not to mention two mass shootings, 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 imaginatively simulate or provoke into action. We are in the center of a maelstrom of uncertainty. The pandemic that forced us to cancel services still hangs over our heads. We have fled to our catacombs, sheltering in place, to avoid danger, for over a year. Even after vaccination, we are careful about where we go and with whom we meet. Our churches remain shuttered and worship services are virtual, and our re-opening days for worship and faith formation are still tentative. Wild and foolish talk has come from megachurch pastors, putting communities at risk, and wanting to hold worship at any cost. A large segment of the population denies science and is skeptical about vaccines.
Holy Week is a lifetime in miniature. Just as our time with the pandemic is a lifetime in miniature. We almost need a month to let the events of Holy Week sink in spiritually and emotionally just as we need contemplative retreats to let the reality of the past year sink in. As we look hopefully beyond the pandemic, we must realize what we have lost and also claim the new insights about our nation we have found.
In his discussion of the Psalms, Biblical scholar 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 last year, most congregations join both palms and passion on what was traditionally called Palm Sunday. The rationale is that we need to experience the pain of betrayal of Maundy Thursday and the abandonment of Good Friday on our way to the “tragic beauty” of 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! But we still need to embrace the celebration with which Holy Week begins.
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. We need to experience the joys of daily life even as we contend with day to day inconveniences, anxieties, and tragedies.
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. Jesus challenges the religious and governmental authorities as a result of their failure to embody God’s vision of possibility and live in accordance with the movements of God’s arc of history.
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 our contemporary situation? I imagine that Jesus would be protesting gun violence, voting suppression, pandemic denial, and our growing violence and racism toward persons of color, including the growing violence against Asian Americans incited by political racist dog whistles. I imagine Jesus weeping in Atlanta and Boulder and on the trek from Central America to the United States.
Maundy Thursday joins memory, hope, and Eucharist with experiences of betrayal and abandonment. Maundy Thursday invites us to live with a eucharistic spirit 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?
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?
When Jesus utters “God, forgive them, they know not what they do,” what personal or national sins is he addressing? Where is our apathy and ignorance contributing to death and destruction?
Good Friday reminds us that God is the fellow sufferer who understands and the intimate companion who celebrates.
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 second pandemic 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 and that God will provide a way where we perceive no way forward.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including the pandemic trilogy, “Faith in a Time of Pandemic,” “Hope Beyond Pandemic,” and “Love in a Time of Crisis and Pandemic,” “Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism,” and “Mystics in Action: 12 Saints for Today.”