By Archbishop Linda Nicholls
Holy Week has always been an important touchstone for my faith and ministry. It is the week at the very centre of our faith story that shows the depth of God’s love for us, the human paths of rejection of that love and the extraordinary gift of God in Jesus Christ. Every year my faith is challenged and renewed as I walk with Jesus from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and into the rejoicing of Easter.
As a cleric, this is the week when ordination vows are renewed and the oils for chrism (baptism) and anointing for healing are blessed. It is a week in which we echo our deepest hopes, experience the intimacy of the disciples with Jesus at the Last Supper—including his demonstration of servanthood in the washing of feet and sharing of bread and wine—and know our place as those who also would have fled the cost in the face of death. We stand at the cross and see the suffering, pain and evils of the world gathered in the body of Christ; we grieve at the tomb and wait, knowing that the story is not over, that as a post-Easter people we can and will rejoice that this is not the final word. This week is the heartbeat of our Christian faith.
When we first were told to self-isolate due to the potential of the COVID-19 pandemic, many trusted that a few weeks of isolation would be over in time for us to enter Holy Week with our usual plans for worship. Subsequent weeks have gradually revealed that this is a far more serious threat than we had understood, and our self-isolation may continue for many weeks or months yet. No one will be gathering for worship during Holy Week. Clergy have been struggling to find ways in which this week can be marked through online worship, palm crosses in baskets at the door, drive-by blessings and other forms of communication. Others have suggested we simply must postpone Easter—possibly said in jest—but there is an underlying grief that implies we cannot celebrate Easter in these circumstances.
When I heard this suggestion I heard the echo of the psalmist in Psalm 137:
‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
We are in a foreign land, not by our choice. It is the land of isolation and quarantine with an enemy we cannot see, all around us. There can be a temptation to give into the despair of the exiles in Babylon and declare we cannot celebrate Easter in what feels like only Good Friday. It is a temptation we must resist.
We are already a post-Easter people. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has already taken place, and the effects of that truth cannot be delayed or postponed because they are with us forever. We live in the post-resurrection world where God is present with us regardless of the circumstances we face. The celebration of Easter renews this truth in our hearts and minds—not because it ceased through the year or due to the current circumstances, but because we, as human beings, need reminders and a remembering of our story through its retelling. It is especially needed in times of distress, when sorrow and loss are speaking louder than joy.
We do not celebrate Easter because life is going well. We celebrate Easter to immerse ourselves in the truths of God’s world: that evil, pain and human sin are not stronger than God’s love for us; that we follow One who knew this world and showed us the way to live in it in faith in unity with God; that we have a hope that gives courage to face the present circumstances, good or bad, and walk together trusting God. Although we cannot celebrate Easter with the glory of a church decorated with flowers and signs of new life, or with our usual joint “Alleluias!” and the joy of singing together “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”, we can celebrate our immersion again in the truths of the Easter story.
We may grieve losing the way we have celebrated in the past, but we can still shout “Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!” to our family and neighbours across the driveway, to friends on Zoom or Facetime, on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, or even to the cat! Christ is risen—and nothing can change that, not even COVID-19.
May your journey through Holy Week be blessed with new insight into the truths of our faith through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. May you be strengthened to wait in sure and certain hope of life beyond COVID-19. May you know joy stronger than any sorrows! Alleluia!