When the pandemic brought in-person gatherings to an abrupt halt last year, Easter was right around the corner. And so it wasn’t long before certain voices in the wider church began offering this bold suggestion: Easter should be postponed, they said, until it was safe to gather again. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know how this suggestion would have played out. An entire year would have come and gone with no Easter celebration. As we approach our second Easter in the time of pandemic, we are – to be sure – in a much more hopeful place. We’re much closer, by all accounts, to the end of this saga. But there’s no denying our sadness that, for the second consecutive year, we’re unable to gather to celebrate the holiest week of the Christian year. We are a resilient community, though. And we will use the gift of technology God has given us to walk this journey faithfully, the best way we can. Here at St. Paul’s, we’re offering opportunities for worship each day of the week to guide us on our Holy Week pilgrimage. Because postponing Holy Week for a better, more convenient time is an option that will simply never make sense. The story the Church tells this week is too important. It cannot wait until life is easier; it cannot wait until circumstances are more accommodating. The story the Church tells this week invites us into the heart of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection – the very center of our faith. It is the story that makes sense of all the other stories of our lives. It is the story we need, right now.
This Holy Week story begins each year with today’s observance, the one we most often call “Palm Sunday” but whose formal name is “The Sunday of the Passion.” Of all the days in our church calendar, it’s the one most likely to give us liturgical whiplash, because it begins with great fanfare and rejoicing, and ends with heart wrenching sorrow. As Jesus enters the city gates of Jerusalem, we welcome him with our branches of palm. We hail him with shouts of Hosanna as we proclaim him the King of Kings. But in no time at all, we’ve reduced his status from King to criminal. We’ve traded our jubilant cries of “hosanna” for the deadly cries of, “Crucify him!” Today, our liturgy tells a story of hope that quickly disintegrates into despair. The writer of Mark’s Gospel, in his telling of this story, is sparse with his words. His account of Jesus’ Passion we heard today is by far the shortest of the four evangelists – every detail is carefully chosen. The picture he paints is one of heartbreaking isolation and abandonment. As Jesus hangs from the cross, the very disciples who vowed never to deny him, even if cost them their lives, are nowhere to be found. The apostle Peter, who resolutely insisted that he would stand with Jesus to the very end has, in fact, denied him three times. Jesus’ followers have abandoned him to die friendless and alone. From this place of desolation, Jesus cries out in the words of the psalmist’s lament: “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?”
More than 2.7 million souls have now perished since the pandemic began. And I can’t help but wonder how many of them also felt forsaken when they died. We’ve seen their stories in photos- the photos shown over and over in news coverage this past year. The photos of grief-stricken family members separated from their dying loved ones by glass partitions – their tear-streamed cheeks pressed up against the glass as they look helplessly from across the divide intended to protect them. These photos tell the story of the pandemic’s power to wreak havoc, to tear at the fabric binding families and communities, and to isolate us even at the point of death. And just as we’ve begun to turn the page on this painful chapter– just as the light of hope begins to shine through the darkness – the tragic and familiar story of violent gun massacres takes center stage once again.
And…the story the Church tells this week is a story precisely for this moment. It is the story of a God who enters headlong into these very places that appear God forsaken to the world. The story the Church tells this week is of a crucified Christ who cries out in solidarity with all who have been abandoned. It is a story of a King who displays power and might by enduring shame and humiliation. It is a story of one who is revealed as the Son of God, most fully and most truly, in the depths of his human suffering. The story of a death that forever transformed death, such that death will never have the final word again. It is the story that makes sense of all the other stories of our lives. It is the story we need, right now.
It is a story of staggering paradox and confounding contradictions. It defies all rational understanding and is more than our minds can fathom. We simply can’t understand our way through this story. We have to walk it. People of St. Paul’s: I invite you to walk the way of Holy Week. I invite you to pray with your community each day of the sacred pilgrimage we walk this week. I invite you to journey to the upper room with Jesus and his disciples on Maundy Thursday…to walk to the foot of cross and behold our Lord’s suffering on Good Firday….to mourn his absence as he lies in the tomb on Holy Saturday….so that, when we greet the empty tomb on Easter morning, our joy will abound all the more. In the messy imperfection of Zoom rooms…across the solitary screens of recorded worship…I invite you to trust. Trust that the God who brings life out of death can transform our lives with this incredible story. It’s a story we desperately need right now. So let’s hear it, together, again. Amen.