Holy Week is usually one of my favorite, most distinctive weeks of the year. I did not grow up going to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services – I’m not sure why that wasn’t part of our faith tradition, but it wasn’t. For a generally cheerful person, I’ve always had a soft spot for candelight and minor keys. And Holy Week is full of contemplative music, hard realities and truths that you don’t really want to hear but desperately need to. In a usual Holy Week, I would have been at church Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday & Good Friday (and probably practiced trumpet for Easter at all of them!)
This year is, of course, different. This year, there was no sitting in a darkening sanctuary listening to the 7 Last Words of Christ and watching the light in the parking lot flicker, as I have every single year for two decades. There were no Taize pleadings to Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom”. The days and weeks have begun to blur together in a sameness only relieved by the gradual, gorgeous unfolding of spring.
But even in a normal Holy Week, there is always this Saturday. Today was actually bright and fair, with brisk winds and waxing sunlight, budding trees, vibrant forsythia and the burgeoning promise of a world soon to bloom. There was little dark about it, other than the day’s statistics on the number of dead mowed down by this novel virus. But today, in the liturgical calendar, is the worst day. Worse, maybe even than Good Friday. In the Easter story, today is the day after Jesus died, while his body lay unprepared in a tomb that wasn’t his. It was the day when the disciples and the women woke up – if they slept at all that night – to a world where hopes had turned to ashes. This day abounded in the bitterness of betrayal: Judas’s betrayal (another unburied body). The betrayal of all the plans. They MUST have thought on this day that Jesus could not possibly be who they hoped he was. He was dead, and the Messiah had not yet brought liberation to the people of Israel. They must have felt sick – how much of what he had taught was true and reliable? How much of their sacrifice had been worthwhile? Had they thrown their lives away on just another pretender? And … what exactly was going to happen next? Were they going to follow him to a criminal’s execution? Would anyone be left to be the son to Mary?
Of all the many dark days whose story is painted in the Bible, this Sabbath might be the very darkest. Hope was irrevocably lost. The worst had well and truly happened. The body was cold. More was likely on the way.
It feels a bit like that now, in this pandemic time. All through January and February, watching the headlines, I thought that this virus would burn itself out or be contained, just like SARs or MERs were – or stay distantly awful like Ebola. Like the apostles – or even Jesus himself in Gethsemane – I hoped that this would once again pass us by. But here we are, locked in our homes, in fear and in shock that our world can be so abruptly transfigured. Fear crawls on the back of astonishment, worrying us about how much worse this will become. Will it be my parents who die? Or me? Will I still have a job? Will this be the next great depression? Of all the people I know and love, who will die and be counted in the daily statistics tallied at 3 pm by the governor? When will I venture onto Facebook and learn that I will never again see someone? Or worse, when will that phone call come through that isn’t just a “How are you doing?”
We are in the deep darkness of the Saturday after Good Friday, friends.
But. There would be no Christianity and no Christians if the story really ended as badly as it appears to – if there were no chapters after “So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” There was real loss on that Saturday. Judas. Jesus as a living man. Mary never again held her son. The world was never the same again. But in this dark hour, let us remember the Easter story, that out of this darkest of days arose a new hope, so powerful as to reshape the entire world for the next 2000 years. Even death was not the end to this story, as it will not be the end to ours.
Tomorrow, when we rise to pancakes and baskets, we may feel like our cries of “He is Risen” are hollow. Like Easter itself is diminished under our collective grief and fear. But that’s just the thing about Easter, my friends. Without Good Friday and Holy Saturday, it’s just a confection – full of sugar and without sustaining substance. The power comes when we have despaired, and sat with our grief. Then we can truly become part of a world made new, in ways that we could not even imagine possible on Palm Sunday.