Holy Week is a big deal in Circle of Hope
Last year during Palm Sunday we waved juniper branches to welcome in our Lord to Jerusalem. We picked juniper because that’s a local plant, and it very well may have been what we elected to use had Jesus been ushered in on Philadelphia’s Broad St.
I remember the year we read the Gospel of Luke in Love Park in the rain. It was so cold outside, but it felt like the right thing to do on Holy Monday. It was one of the most memorable experiences I had on Holy Week.
I remember when we shouted the words of Jesus from Matthew 25 on 17th St. right by the Comcast Center on Holy Tuesday. Speaking to the destruction of the Temple was even more ominous next to our own temple in Center City.
On Holy Wednesday, I remember journeying across the Ben Franklin Bridge to get to Martha and Mary’s house to be anointed. We crushed flowers and let their oils infuse us. It is a sweet, intimate ceremony.
And then on Maundy Thursday, the most intimate act occurs, we approach one another, and wash each other’s feet. It’s a very Anabaptist way of doing things—we apply Jesus’ words as written.
Good Friday might be the best day. We walk in our neighborhoods, the Franciscan stations of the cross now symbolized by the everyday things we pass by. I’ll never look at the Milk Bottle in East Kensington the same way: it’s Jesus on the cross. Or hearing the roar of the El train: that’s Jesus dying.
The evening haunts me every year. We’re closing Jesus’ grave. We utter his last seven statements in our Tenebrae observance. Each statement extinguishing a candle until the room is black. Our meeting space on North Broad St. was notoriously dark. A perfect venue. The image of Emmett Till’s mother crying at his funeral shown right when we sing stabat mater, a song of the mourning Mary. Unbelievably powerful.
Saturdays were silent. God is crucified. The world in despair.
And then that moment. It’s on Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park. We rush to bless the tomb of our dead rabbi and leader, like those first women did. And we realize something else has happened. He is Risen! Some of us make like John and Peter and run to the hill when we hear the news. Drums fill the air. Bikes are thrown onto the hill as we sprint to the sight of the Resurrection. Jesus conquers the grave. And four hundred of us celebrate in the early morning. The sun rises and the Son has risen. Risen indeed.
A Holy Week unlike any other and all the loss that comes with that
Holy Week and Easter are the highest of holy seasons in Circle of Hope. Memories abound in me of so many meaningful experiences. And yet this year, it is all different. We’re in our homes. We’re hiding out. We aren’t together. There are no pilgrimages to the different corners of our city as we walk with Jesus toward the grave. There will be no big assembly on that memory-laden hill as we await the resurrection of our Savior.
We will still pray. We will grieve. We will still worship together on this holiest of weeks. We are praying at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. every day and then finally at 9 p.m. at night, alone, but together at circleofhope.net/onlinemeeting. But it’s different because everything is different. The world changed overnight it seems.
I had my kids’ birthday parties on Feb. 29. It was totally normal. The next Sunday was the first Sunday of Lent. Also normal. The following Saturday, there was a kid’s birthday party I was at and I tried not to use my hands to grab the snacks. A little adjustment there. And then I was figuring out how we’d worship together but safely. That Thursday, I decided to try to convince the pastors to have our meetings online. We did. It all changed so fast, and now we’re here.
Opening Day for the Phillies was supposed to be last week. I forgot about it. It past by me. I was sad when I realized how beautiful it was on Sunday and how joyous the ballpark would have been, even if the Phillies lost (which they almost assuredly would).
The loss and death seem endless
There is so much loss to endure. And I’m feeling it. I still come to my office on Sundays to broadcast our Sunday meetings. Except this time, I lock the door behind me and make sure no one comes in. Instead of greeting all of the people that gather to worship, I watch a YouTube livestream fill up as I see who is in attendance, waiting. I watch as my old and new friends chat with one another in such a casual way, it brings me joy, but also despair. It’s bittersweet. I wish we were together. I miss you all very much.
And I’m finally settling into the loss of it, since we’re past the emergency response mode. This is a new normal, it seems, and I don’t know what will follow. I don’t know when the next ordinary Sunday meeting will happen. I don’t know if my first grader will go back to school. I’m picking up her Chromebook next week so she can get online learning done.
I don’t know if Advent will be the same as it was last year. I am not sure. No one really is. Philadelphia’s infection rate is growing as much as New York’s. So we are shrouded in mystery. My friend who works for a big pharmaceutical company tells me a vaccine might be ready by the end of the year, or the beginning of next at the earliest. He says Bill Gates is helping.
One more case of the epidemic of figures, in this case: new confirmed cases by CBSA in the US. Data aggregated from the county-level data of the NYT. (thicker black line=Philly) pic.twitter.com/yVfzRr6h0i
— Usama Bilal (@usama_bilal) March 27, 2020
But then I learn that Philly’s poor are untested and more vulnerable, so who knows when North Philly will be through this plague.
Not only are Philadelphians in lower-income neighborhoods getting fewer tests, but they're more likely to carry the underlying chronic conditions that worsen the severity of the disease. Attentive work from @usama_bilal, who you should follow. https://t.co/zpiRPFoodg
— Josiah Kephart (@jlashk) April 6, 2020
And that’s not even the only loss we’ll experience. People we know are now becoming statistics. More people are dying. At the time of writing this, Philly has 45 deaths and 4,000 cases, nearly. New York is getting ready for temporary interment on public property. What world are we living in? It’s scary, it’s sad, it’s confusing. I’m writing to tell you that I feel it, and that I’m with you. It finally hit me on Palm Sunday when I realized it would all be different.
Hosanna means “Please Save Us” and it’s my prayer more than ever
But yes, I shouted Hosanna again this last Sunday. And I meant it more than I ever did. I need God to save me. I need the material consequence of the cross to express itself once more. Yes, I need God to make everything right, and I trust that God has and God will be. God’s big action in the world is saving it, and this pandemic makes the reality of God’s salvation even more relevant. We are being threatened in a palpable way and we need God’s deliverance.
So this Easter, this Holy Week, it is even more important to pray, and to worship, and to gather in the only way we can. We will still await the Lord and our salvation. We will exit our spiritual quarantine, what we call Lent, with the same fervor and joy as we always do. By this time next week, we will be declaring that the Lord is Risen. But this time, we’ll still be in quarantine. We’ll still be wondering and waiting.
And true to our reality, we’re still awaiting our Lord to return. We’re still in the in-between moment. We are still taking communion in order to broadcast the Lord’s death until he comes. And God will be faithful. Of that I am sure. But my assurance of salvation and faithfulness doesn’t take away the sting now.
I just want to say to you that I get it. I feel it. This is a painful moment. God’s promise doesn’t change how we feel now, but it does cure our despair from being eternal. We will get through this and we will get through this together. It is the darkest night. But morning will come. The sun will rise, just like the Son has risen. So brave the walk toward the cross this week, it might be the most memorable Holy Week we’ve ever had. It is certainly the realest one I’ve experienced. Enter into it with intention, and maybe because we have to imagine a little less because of the misery of our circumstance, it will be even more meaningful. Pray for God to save us. We really need it.