We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and from what health officials are telling us, the worst is yet to come over the next two weeks. We are all going to be touched by the novel coronavirus pandemic, directly or indirectly. Someone we know will get sick. A family member or friend may die. It is unclear how long many businesses, large and small, and churches, large and small, can hold on if this plague does not abate soon.
And all this comes in the holiest of all weeks for Christians. During Holy Week 2020, we will observe Good Friday and celebrate the Resurrection in the midst of widespread sickness and mass death. To say that this is sobering is an understatement. There really are no words to express or explain the weight of this moment that has consumed us, not just in the United States, but on a global scale.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is closed due to COVID-19. Whereas President Trump several times spoke wistfully – and astonishingly – of churches being “full” on Easter, we know now that most every church across the country will be empty on Sunday. We will celebrate the Resurrection virtually; our Jewish brothers and sisters will keep distance from one another as they mark the Passover.
Everything has changed because of this pandemic, so it really should be no surprise that Holy Week is different this year too, and that Good Friday and Easter will not escape the impact.
“Perhaps this Holy Week we will feel closer to Calvary than we have for some time.”
When speaking of the journey through the valley of the shadow of death, David famously declared that he would “fear no evil,” trusting that God’s “rod and staff” would comfort him. But of course, that table which God prepares before us sits in the “presence of [our] enemies.” Many of us this year will sit at that table alone amid an invisible and deadly enemy, unable to gather with friends or anyone beyond our immediate family (if that).
I don’t know if David expected to sit at that table alone when he wrote those words. As we walk through this valley, our company will be those whom we can reach on the telephone or over FaceTime or Zoom. It’s just going to be different this time.
Perhaps what will resonate most naturally this week is the lived experience of the crucifixion – the lived experience of unspeakable loss, grief, sorrow and despair as the numbers of infected around the world continue to rise and the death toll continues to climb. Perhaps the cross will speak for itself this year in a way that it does not normally do, because we’re all being strung up on a tree mentally, emotionally and psychologically. Perhaps this Holy Week we will feel closer to Calvary than we have for some time.
There are years when pastors have to work to make the cross meaningful for congregants and parishioners because our lives are, comparatively, so easy and drama free. I often feel the need to challenge people to “go there,” to visit the spiritual and emotional darkness of that Friday that was anything but “good” the first time around. I often feel like we are disconnected from that sense of trauma and loss and (seeming) defeat, and that we have to work hard to relate to what Mother Mary, the beloved disciple and other followers must have felt at the foot of the cross.
Not this year.
This year, the crucifixion will likely be foremost in our minds. The more difficult work will be manufacturing hope out of this moment. The greater challenge will be forcing some meaningful measure of joy and positive possibility out of a space that offers only glimmers of either.
It looks like the apex of the coronavirus crisis is coming soon for New York City as the nation’s epicenter. Perhaps, on the other side of that terrible mountain, there will be some relief. Perhaps, according to many public health experts, the apex will be followed by a plateau and then maybe a decline – and then maybe a merciful end. And, Christ have mercy, maybe even sooner than some models have forecast if enough Americans remain steadfast to “flattening the curve.”
There are signs of victory in China, Taiwan, South Korea and other places that leveraged science, social distancing and isolation and aggressive containment to turn the tide. New York’s governor secured 1,000 ventilators from Chinese philanthropists, and Oregon’s governor is sending the city 140 more. Loans are on their way to small businesses. Checks are on their way to eligible Americans who are unemployed.
“Easter is coming. Make some room for it in your heart and in your soul.”
Whereas the president has over the past three months has failed this nation and its citizens – with catastrophic consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods – mayors and other community leaders have stepped up. Across the country, people are finding new ways to be with and for each other. People are making masks in their homes and finding ways to properly sanitize PPE so that it can be reused. Restaurants are donating meals to those who are food insecure. Doctors and nurses are coming out of retirement to help. Volunteers are responding to urgent appeals to provide desperately needed support for exhausted medical personnel, many of whom are putting their health and lives at risk every day.
Many who have fallen sick are recovering. Progress on treatments for the virus is advancing, and the pace toward the development of a vaccine is accelerating.
There are signs of hope. There are reasons to believe that the victory of Resurrection can and will be made manifest in our midst – eventually.
David declared that even though he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, “surely goodness and mercy” would follow him always and that God would be with him forever. This year, this Holy Week, we have to find a way to believe that.
Easter is coming. Make some room for it in your heart and in your soul. Oh, how we need it.
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