U.S. Surgeon General warns that the coming week “…is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives.”
This grim headline greeted me as I logged into Facebook on Palm Sunday in order to join the HTLC “Watch Party” for virtual worship. How strange, I thought, that the terror, which has been building in our nation for weeks, would reach its supposed pinnacle during the holiest week of the church year.
This isn’t how Holy Week is supposed to go.
During Holy Week, as we follow our Lord to the cross, we do so knowing in the back of our minds that empty tomb and the bright light of Easter Sunday await us on the other end of the darkness. Although the events we commemorate are solemn, for most of us Holy Week usually brings a flurry of busyness and activity: plans to attend additional worship services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, an extra trip to the grocery store for the extravagant Easter feast that we will enjoy with family and friends, dying Easter eggs and hiding them around the house for the kids to find, just to name a few.
This year, Holy Week will be much different. For the first time in centuries, the holiest days in the church year will be celebrated around the world without the physical gathering of the people of God. Rather than planning our typical Easter feasts, we’ll practice social distancing and gather for a simpler meal with those already present in our homes. And, as the Surgeon General warned, this year Holy Week will be punctuated by death on a scale most of us have never seen before in our lifetimes. The darkness feels overpowering and it so often seems impossible to hope.
The global community has been thrown headfirst into a crisis that has upended our very existence and destroyed without warning the habits and routines that we relied on to bring stability to our lives. We are now sequestered in our homes, we wear masks when we must venture out to public places, and despite glimmers of hope that our efforts might be making a difference, that we might be “flattening the curve”, we can see no definitive end in sight. We do not know what the future holds. It is, indeed, a dark and scary time to be alive.
This isn’t how Holy Week is supposed to go.
And yet, the darkness that we experience this week is exactly why the world needed Holy Week.
You see, Holy Week is so much more than the rituals and traditions that we have come to expect. Holy Week reminds us that our God is a crucified God. It reminds us that our God entered into human suffering in a very real way, even experiencing the darkness of death. Holy week reminds us that in moments of suffering and death, when we find ourselves in the midst of the “hardest and saddest” of weeks, we can confidently cling to the certain hope that God is still with us in our suffering and God will transform death into life.
Despite the certainty of our hope, it will be a hard message to proclaim this Easter. The reality is, not much will have changed in our world between Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday. The celebratory cries of Alleluia, Christ is Risen! will seem out of place. But, in a way, that is what Easter is all about. It is joy when joy seems impossible, it is light when darkness seems overpowering, and it is life when death seems to have the final say. Easter has changed the world. Death does not have the final say. God does.
John Chrysostom, one of the Early Church Fathers, preached an Easter Sermon in the late 300s that I have found particularly poignant this year. I encourage you to read aloud the closing lines of his sermon, printed below, on Sunday as a reminder that darkness and death are vanquished forever.
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar, because it was mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it was destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar because it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and it discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!
Dear friends in Christ, Happy Easter.