An “Unholy” Week?

Palm Sunday 20

Here we are then at the beginning of Holy Week – and yet, it doesn’t really feel like it!

For me, this is normally the busiest time of year:
with a range of services and acts of worship to be prepared and delivered;
special services to be “re-learned” and then rehearsed with the team of servers;
practicalities to check – such as the building of the Easter bonfire or the acquiring of super-sized chocolate eggs for our two main congregations;
liaising with our friends at the Baptist Church ahead of Good Friday’s walk of witness.

So it’s very odd this year to find myself still busy – but doing none of those “normal” things,

Instead, together with Caroline, our Curate, the main task, just now, has been in trying to keep some form of contact with the members of our congregations and also to offer some kind of Easter experience for the communities around us.

And so the last 2 weeks have involved, not only busy phone lines, but something of a crash course in social media! Our Facebook page has been hastily reordered – the world of You Tube has been explored and our Parish website linked to more resources, such as meditations and prayers for use at home.

And then, of course, there’s been the corresponding task of writing, selecting, recording and editing material to post at those various “outlets”.

That’s been an interesting experience – if at times frustrating and equally at times very moving in the responses that I’ve received.

But none of it quite takes away the sense of “absence” – the sense that this is not how Holy Week is meant to be.

And that brings with it a sense of powerlessness – even if that is coupled with a conviction that staying at home IS the right thing to do just now.

What I think a number of us are experiencing is a kind of “slow motion” Easter: we’ve already sensed the loss and uncertainty that Jesus’ friends experienced as he was lost to them.

There was a palpable sense of shock – when churches were closed, and our normal way of worshipping together taken from us.

Even being told to stay at home – in fairly stark terms – was quite hard for those of us more used to be out and with other people. That loss of freedom is difficult.

And it’s proved something of a shock for families used to going their own separate ways during the day – for work or school or college: suddenly being together all day and every day, with no other company to dilute the mix, demands new rules of engagement if the battle for personal space is not to be lost as well.

Harder still is the enforced separation of those unable to visit loved ones who are sick or dying – and the double sense of isolation that brings.
We share perhaps the disciples’ sense of disorientation as familiar patterns and routines are lost. Like them we find ourselves in a situation where everything we thought we knew – everything we were expecting – has been thrown out. We don’t know what is going to happen next; we don’t know when we’ll get back to “normal”, or even what “normal” is going to look like when we get there.

And there’s a certain amount of confusion around too.
I have to admit that I sometimes struggle to remember what day it is, now they all seem remarkably similar!
And for those now working from home for the first time, there’s the fresh challenge of demarcating work time and family or leisure time: how do we know when to “clock on” and “clock off”? Can I do a couple of extra hours work today, while it’s quiet, then a bit less tomorrow?
And will I remember?!

Am I, at this moment, professional, partner, parent or all three at once?

How can I anchor myself in these strange waters that I’m now forced to navigate?
Shock, disorientation, confusion – in many ways, our loss of church worship and the loss now of our usual Holy Week observance, both sound rather like bereavement.
Those three emotions, that we usually associate with grief, do seem to be present now, as we live through this gradual and sometimes painful process of adjusting to a different way of living.

We shouldn’t be surprised then if sometimes we find it hard going – if our emotions sometimes lurch in response to certain triggers: living where we do, alongside the Parish Church, I can’t help noticing the lack of bells on a Monday evening; or of the sound of organists practising on Tuesdays and Wednesday; or of the strains of the choir on Thursday evenings.
For now the church stands silent – a physical reminder of the “absence” we feel – a reminder, we might say, of the silence of the tomb.

This, then, is our Holy Saturday experience: like the disciples we know what we have lost, but we can’t yet see the joy that lies beyond. Like them we are forced to hide away, in the relative safety of our homes. Like the first Christians, we are forbidden to gather in public.
And yet we do know that this will not last for ever –
we don’t yet know when it will end, but do know it will.

A very particular perspective on this was offered, this week, by Terry Waite – who, in the 1980s, was envoy for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.
In 1987, Waite was sent to Beirut, to try and negotiate for the release of two American hostages. In the event he was himself taken hostage, and kept in cramped conditions for over four years.

It’s with a particular wisdom, then, that he gave advice to any of us struggling with our current isolation.

First of all, he said, we need a change of mindset: we are not “stuck” at home, we are “safe” at home”.

There is a real difference.

In order to cultivate that positive frame of mind he suggests 4 practical steps:
1 – keep your own dignity – don’t sit around all day in your pyjamas!
2 – Form a structure to your day – that might mean set times each day for prayer, for exercise, for meals
3 – Be grateful for what you have – not least for the shelter that our homes provide, and something not everyone does have.
4 Read and do something creative – don’t just sit and fret about things, feed your mind.

So, can we use this enforced stillness to notice the good things that are there for us?
Without the usual volume of traffic we hear the birdsong more clearly.
Without our daily encounter with the usual people, our fleeting conversations – from a distance, on the phone or by other means – somehow mean more to us.

Can we use this time to really appreciate the things we are missing – even simple things, like pasta or Reeve’s cakes!
Can we use this time to really appreciate the people we depend on – those in our pharmacies and medical staff, for example.

And what about the things we can now do – that we’re normally far to busy for – or that we can now do differently, in more creative ways?

One of the many posts that caught my eye on Facebook read “In the rush to return to normal, it’s worth asking which parts of normal are really worth rushing back to.”

We can learn from this experience – we can grow through this period of restriction and come out the other side renewed and refreshed.

We can yet discover again what is truly precious to us; what is vital to our communities, our society, our planet;
what is fundamental to our faith and our church.
Of course, I am NOT trying to suggest that this pandemic is some kind of blessing in disguise: for those who have lost loved ones, Covid 19 represents a devastating loss that can never be undone. It would be crass to suggest otherwise.

And yet, even then, our faith refuses to see a dead end.

The experience of Good Friday was agonizing for Jesus himself AND for those who loved him – forced to stand by helplessly, unable to do anything to ease his suffering.

We know now that through his suffering the world was changed for good – God’s love for us revealed,
the way to eternal life opened to us.

From this time – with all its frustrations, hardship and grief – still good things can come and will come, if we enable them to.

May God give us grace to trust in him who suffered, died and rose again for us – knowing that we will rejoice again, in his presence and in each other’s company. Amen.