As I prepared for this service, in this strangest year of my life to date, two things struck me about my experience of this Lent and Holy Week.
In one way, this has been my worst Lent in many years. None of my Lenten disciplines are particularly dramatic. But for the last several years, between a few things taken on and a few things given up, the rhythm of my days has shifted in Lent. As a consequence, no matter what else was going on, I was always pretty well focused on the fact that it was Lent, that it was a season of prayer and fasting and self-denial and so on.
But not this year. I have more or less stuck with my usual disciplines. But this year my routines were so fundamentally altered by the covid-19 virus that the little changes I made to acknowledge Lent seem almost irrelevant. Mostly I have been trying to figure out how to do the basic things I need to do without coming within six feet of other human beings or even touching things that other people have recently touched.
So, in one way, this has been a failed Lent for me. I suspect the same has been true for a lot of people.
But in another way, my experience of Lent this year, what I am guessing has been the experience of many of us this year, has been more faithful to the true spirit of Lent than has ever been the case for me before.
Lent is supposed to be a season for facing our limitations, our failures, and our mortality. At the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, we are invited, in the name of the Church, to choose different disciplines that help us to do that.
This year, my particular Lenten practices weren’t a big help. That itself has been a lesson in my own limitations.
But more importantly, the corona virus and the dramatic measures we have all had to take to slow its spread have forced us all to acknowledge our vulnerability, our anxiety, and our all too obvious mortality. The corona virus has forced us all into a Lenten season of withdrawal, of broken routines, of helplessness, and of grief.
Despite ourselves, even against our will, we have all been prepared over the last few weeks for this day, for Good Friday and the brutal lessons of the long Passion Gospel we just heard.
The Good Friday reading puts us at the foot of the cross where we have to watch helplessly as Jesus dies. It must have been awful even to contemplate for anyone who loved Jesus. It must have been especially hard for the few who were brave enough to be present with Christ in his last agonizing moments. And it must have been worst of all for Jesus’ mother who could do nothing to help her beloved son.
I have certainly never experienced a pain so intense as what Mary must have felt that day. But we have all had a little taste of that pain in the last few weeks, as a force beyond our control has ravaged our communities, disrupted our lives, and killed so many.
Most of the time, most of us do our best to carry on, to do what we can to live normally, to fight the sense of helplessness and fear that has been growing in many of us over the last several weeks.
But today we pause to look straight at the horror of the cross, to acknowledge that most inevitable, and usually most ignored, fact of human life: we will all die and there is nothing we can do about it. Today we pause from whatever routines we have been able to establish in order to express our fear and grief, our fear and grief over what happened to Jesus all those centuries ago, and our fear and grief at what is happening around us right now.
Today is a day for lamentation, which is not something we do naturally in contemporary America, but which is something we need to do when we are hurting.
But lamentation is not the full story. In addition to lamenting, we can, if we put ourselves back at the foot of the cross, learn two invaluable lessons for our situation today.
Not even the Virgin Mary can prevent Jesus from suffering and dying. But Mary can prevent Jesus from dying alone. Sometimes standing with people is all we can do. But it is something, and it makes a difference. Ask anyone who has kept vigil at the bedside of someone as they die. It is a holy act. It is a profound act of faithfulness and love. And it matters.
In this time of quarantine, we cannot be physically present with each other in the normal way. But all of us, the sick and the healthy, need companionship, moral support, the comfort of knowing that we are not alone. So we reach out in the ways that we can. It may seem like a small gesture. But we can all do our little part to follow the example of Mary at the cross by staying in contact with each other. That is a first lesson we can learn from our Gospel reading.
The second is just as important. There is life after crucifixion.
In three days, we will celebrate Christ’s resurrection, which is the great fact of life after crucifixion. But that is not what I am talking about now.
As Christ dies in agony, as his mother watches in her own agony, Jesus nods at his beloved disciple John, and he says to Mary, “Woman, here is your son.” To John, Jesus says, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27).
What is going on here? As he says those words, Jesus is not looking ahead to his own resurrection, important though that is, of course. Jesus is reminding Mary and his beloved disciple that the horror of the crucifixion will come to an end, that they have a future, that their lives will go on. Who knows if Mary and John could take in what Jesus was saying in that moment? But Jesus was reminding them that, horrible as things truly were, the horror would end. The pain would linger, of course. But crucifixion was not the end of the story, not for Jesus who would be raised. And not for them either, who had the ongoing responsibility of caring for each other.
As I look ahead today, the end of our current crisis is not in sight. There is more suffering to endure. And for many of us, the pain of these days will linger, perhaps for the rest of our lives.
But the covid virus will pass. There is a future after covid. Even as we endure, we can look ahead in hope to the day when our lives will resume, changed no doubt, but still they will resume.
And so today we grieve. We acknowledge our helplessness and vulnerability. But with Christ’s help, we can remain faithful even in these days, both to God and to each other. And with Christ’s help, we can look forward to a future life, in this lifetime and for all eternity with God.
And so on this Good Friday, I give thanks to God. In Christ’s name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan