I have unexpectedly mixed feelings as we embark on this year’s Holy Week. Holy Week is usually a week that I look forward to. It’s a time to think deeply about important theological issues, and a time when there are more opportunities for what I think of as good church—gatherings of my companions in the faith, good music, meaningful connection, silence, a complicated story that offers new insight every time I read through it in the midst of community.
Last year, Holy Week was enormously different because we were not only in pandemic mode, but in more or less lockdown mode. Everything got stripped down to the essentials. We hadn’t quite figured out Zoom, but it felt good that we could still “gather” at all, even if it resembled the opening of The Brady Bunch.
We are not in lockdown this year, but still in a “safer at home” situation, with face masks and physical distancing, as Covid rates stubbornly persist (and as we await a high percentage of the fully vaccinated). Old South’s Holy Week services will be on Zoom, as they were last year, although we have now become more sophisticated with our Zoom services. We are also engaging in more collaboration, with two services during the week held in conjunction with another local UCC church. And, one of the big bonuses is that I’m away from home for Palm Sunday weekend, visiting a very lonely adult child whose schedule did not allow for a post-Easter visit. With my laptop in hand, I can continue to work, and that includes the leading of the Palm Sunday service.
Still, I am unsettled. While I am grateful for the opportunities that technology allows, it is in the midst of Holy Week when the limits of technology are laid bare. Our Maundy Thursday service usually involves a potluck dinner. Easter Sunday includes a larger, and louder, congregation, with lots of women wearing hats and plants adorning the chancel. Before the pandemic, we held an Easter breakfast, with still more together time. The loss of sharing a communal meal is a significant one.
Perhaps most of all, I miss the intimacy of observing Holy Week while in direct contact with my small congregation. When we are in the same space, I am able to speak more directly from the pulpit, and out of the pulpit, to those who call Old South their spiritual home. This allows a key ingredient to understanding what’s going on with individuals and the congregation as a whole. Holy Week, in particular, is a key time in the church year to get a sense of things—how people are feeling and what they thinking in relationship to faith, what parts of the passion story are especially challenging, in what places do they perceive hope and new life. All of these things are impossible on Zoom.
Gathering in any way is important, and so we shall. But, as the congregation ages and shrinks, this is not a good time to be physically distanced from each other. Mainers are not good at sharing aloud what they are deeply feeling and thinking. I get more from body language, eye contact and the almost imperceptible facial expressions during worship or a one-on-one conversation. The long stretch of distance is taking a toll on how I lead this group. I feel that toll most keenly now, in this important time in the liturgical year.
In recent months, there’s been a fair amount of chatter—among groups of churches, in associations, conferences and denominations— regarding the sharing of “new life” stories and “resurrection” stories as congregations, large and small, have met the challenges of pandemic in remarkable and surprising ways. But, I’m also interested in how we relate to, experience, and connect with the part of the story before the resurrection. What’s happening in the dark and difficult places? What’s going on in the challenging, uncertain and terrifying parts of the story, and how we experience and understand them one year after another?
Holy Week is not only about the joyous and wondrous message at the end of the journey. It’s about the story as a whole, about spending time in the painful and demanding moments, the hard to comprehend moments, moments of betrayal and desertion, moments of yearning and longing, moments of feeling completely and utterly hopeless, lost and abandoned. The observance of Holy Week involves gathering, just as those early followers gathered, and not just in spirit.
We will gather in this strange time. We will engage with the old story. We will listen for something new. We will consider what it means to follow and to live a life of faith. But, something important and meaningful will be missing in the loss of the bodily component of our faith, which is so much a part of the holy story of this week.