Good Friday in a Pandemic 2020
It is often said that our faith comes cheaply these days. A faith that the secular world seems happy to ‘tolerate’ as long as we Christians understand it in terms of a personal ‘choice’, to be safely exercised in the privacy of our own homes and churches.
In an article called The Price of Faith in a Pandemic, Timothy Dalrymple (Christianity Today 7/4/20) ponders what has been on many a Rector’s mind for years. “There are times and places when the church lives in such peace and abundance that faith becomes an inexpensive thing. What cost another generation their lives and livelihoods costs us only Sunday mornings and a modest tithe.”
Yet thankfully, such is the rhythm of our seasonal calendar of worship that once a year – Holy Week, and particularly this day Good Friday – our thoughts about faith are brought into sharp focus in a way that should cast aside any complacency. This is the heart of our faith.
For us more contemplative Anglicans this season of refocusing on the cross begins with Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Lent is a season of penance, of looking at the world around us and reassessing what is essential in the shadow of the cross looming just over the horizon. After 45 days (or so) of journeying towards that cross, no matter what Christian 'type' we cluster around, we faithful ALL stop and meticulously work through the last days of Jesus ministry among the disciples. Every moment of that last night with them – from the selection of a place for their final supper, to the intricacies of that meal. The wild night out on the road that follows, leading to Jesus’ arrest and the scattering of the disciples as fugitives. A mock trial and a speedy unjustified, undignified execution.
Each year this story draws us in afresh. Each year a different aspect offering new clarity on our lifelong path towards greater understanding of the mystery of God.
Good Friday in the grip of pandemic throws up new clarity to me as the pastor – assistant shepherd of a flock very much dispersed. In the light of 2020, alone in my study preparing an online service, it strikes me how much of our faith is based on physical touch.
Lost first in the pandemic was the greeting of the peace, where we stop in the middle of worship to symbolically shake each other’s hand.
Then we lost the shared cup. I have always appreciated the shared cup, but never more so than sitting in the Sanctuary at church with a 200+ congregation all coming forward to share their cup. From Governors General to people from the neighbouring housing commission flats, all in a long line down the aisle to share the cup that symbolises our one-ness with each other as much as our one-ness with God. Again about physical touch. The feeling of the swallowed bread in our throats, the warmth of the alcohol in our mouths, very tangible signs of something ‘entering’ our bodies as we pray to receive Jesus even deeper within.
In Communion we join with a God who, in the last moments with his disciples, when those last words would be the clearest in their memory - the lesson he taught was to wash their feet.
And so, last night on Maundy Thursday we would have washed each other’s feet. Now the washing of feet has gone, along with the shared meal we had planned. To have another person wash you is very intimate, it takes quite a bit of surrender even if you know the person well. One walks away from that encounter opened up, perhaps our vulnerability a little shaken up, and hopefully more deeply connected with the other. Again transformed by a physical sensation.
Alone we might live but we need others to thrive. In this, all of my life I will remember people I met in prison squeezing a couple of fingers through the mesh fence just for that benefit of touch, my touch. Also my bewilderment that my touch could be the conveyor of peace to a stranger. Oh the puzzlingly rich rewards that faith offers!
Today we would have walked through Hall in our annual Stations of the Cross procession, taking turns to carry that wooden cross. The crowd swelling noisily around us as we progress the couple of kilometers through Hall. As we read the story of the passion, we are transported into the crowd – watching the spectacle. So much of the expression of our faith, our understanding of what it is to be faithful, is about touching, presence and community.
Touching, presence and community have been incorporated into our comfortable Sundays and Easter traditions – which will soon have their time again. Perhaps next year’s tradition will be to look back at the video we made for today in place of our procession as a memory of the ‘isolation days’. That time when our physical connections were interrupted.
This year, in what some have called the “the lentiest lent ever lented” or “the perpetual Holy Saturday” – a time of emptiness and slow anticipation where much of our everyday life has been left behind – we find ourselves coming to Easter with all that touch, presence and community left behind.
This year we are not transported into the jostling crowd, but into the solitary space of the wretched man praying in the Garden of Gethsemane for any other cup.
Into the solitary space of one arrested, flogged, mocked and left alone to slowly die in the hot sun.
Into the solitary place of the one who could persevere through this agony, as the holder of a wonderful secret, “who laid down his life of his own free will”. One who knew this trial would end, and in the end all those who put him there would be invited into the “big reveal”, the eternal secret of what love looks like.
It looks like a wretched innocent man hanging on a cross who could have chosen a different path. Ah yes, faith is a 'choice'. It looks like the most powerful man to walk the earth kneeling on the floor washing dirt from a poor fisherman’s feet.
To us today love might look like ‘staying home’, giving up livelihood and leisure, and giving up our human and sacred need to congregate and touch. 'Stay home', 'isolate', how hard can that be in our comfortable homes connected online to the world? But I am thinking of those lonely prisoners, thinking of people among us who live alone and rely on the church for community. Isolation is not a trivial Lenten offer. Something we offer for the benefit of people we do not know, who may or may not be grateful, who may never know the sacrifices that some have made for others.
In pondering this we have been given an opportunity to come a little closer to Christ on his cross.
As wonderfully liberating and spiritually fulfilling as a march in the Autumn sunshine (or rain) would have been today, we can be joyful that instead we have been given the opportunity to participate in an event even more profoundly aligned with the will of the God we worship. Loving our neighbour.
The perpetual good news is simply that Jesus was born, died for us, and rose again, taking all the fear from death and filling us with the hope of eternal life.
Whether we celebrate Easter, or how we celebrate it, does not change that larger trajectory of God’s plan, or the path for our faith to take. When our comfortable Sunday was lost, we found new ways to connect and worship. There is no 'perpetual Holy Saturday' because today on Good Friday we celebrate the door opening to perpetual eternity.
John Newton asks the question we should annually ask on Good Friday: "If these things are so, if he lived and wept and bled and died for us, what manner of persons ought we to be?"
We ought to be "compassionate as your Father is compassionate" (Luke 6:36) and "Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful" (Hebrews 10:23).
May the Word live in us, and bear much fruit to His Glory.