Holy Week

We often talk about belief when we talk about religion. I frequently have conversations with people who see religion as a set of intellectual assents. Can you accept certain concepts? Often the distinctions between religion and science are boiled down to certain things that are believed by practitioners of religion. Those critical of religion are often quick to offer their opinion that they could never agree to certain religious statements. The virgin birth is often cited as a barrier to the embrace of Christianity. Concepts of life after death are also frequently given as a reason not to be religious. “I am not a religious person. I don’t believe that there is anything after death. When you are dead, you are dead.”

I suppose I could spend hours and days and weeks debating with others over certain beliefs. I could point out that there are a lot of uncertainties in life. But I don’t experience my life in the church as a set of things that you have to believe. I don’t consider my experience as a pastor to be about the promotion of certain things with which others need to agree. I’ve never been one to try to convince people to embrace a concept that they don’t want to embrace. I’m not about converting how people think.

I have, however, chosen to immerse myself in the church. I live inside of the rhythm of a particular calendar. I go through the cycle of Advent waiting every year. I read the stories of Jesus’ ministry over and over. I embrace Lent. Every year I enter into the process of Holy Week, which connects me with a very elemental, very human reality. Everyone, regardless of their religious convictions or practices, experiences grief and loss. Everyone, regardless of which beliefs they hold, is mortal. We all die.

I probably don’t speak of eternity in exactly the same way as many Christian pastors. I don’t promote the thought that death is somehow not permanent. I don’t speak of someone who has died as being magically restored to this life. Often I don’t speak of what happens after we die much at all. After all, it is unknown to those of us who are living. As many books as you want to read that try to describe near death experiences, they are books that describe only near death, not books that describe actual death. Like a dream, the experiences of one under heavy sedation or whose heart has stopped beating and the resumes, are composed of thoughts and ideas that they already have in their brains. We don’t know exactly what happens in the brain of one who is unconscious, but we do know that there are dreamlike memories which some people retain.

I do, however, speak of the eternal in different ways. I watch my grandson, who is just learning how to walk over the computer as we FaceTime or Skype with him and his parents in Japan. He sometimes takes a fall and bumps harder than h expected. As he cries, I see my daughter pick him up and embrace him and reassure him. What she does naturally, by instinct, is exactly what my mother used to do when she was caring for my nieces and nephews. My daughter is adopted. She has no genetic link to my mother, but when I see her hand on the small of the back of my grandson and I see his head against her shoulder, I can feel my mother’s hands. I can remember the embrace of our own children. It has been more than nine years since my mother died. Watching my daughter embrace her son is enough of an experience of eternity for me. If that is all there is to eternity, it is enough.

There is, however, always more.

There are many things about this particular year that have thrown off my sense of rhythm about Holy Week. We read the passion to an empty church last night. Staring at a camera bears no particular resemblance to the experience of leading a congregation in worship. The familiar words and the well-known flow of the story felt strange. I know that others are listening. I understand a bit of how the technology works, but things are different. Maybe things would be very different anyway. I know it is my last Holy Week with this congregation. It may be my last Holy Week serving as a worship leader. I’m entering into a phase of life that I have never before experienced.

And none of us can escape thoughts of the depth of grief that has descended on our world. More than 10,000 have died in our country. More than 1.2 million people in the world have died as a result of the coronavirus. And some of those people have died alone. Their family members weren’t able to be with them, to hold them in their final hours. The number of people who are directly grieving the death of loved ones is staggering.

This month is 50 years since my sister died. I still carry the grief. And upon that grief is layered grief of the deaths of our father, and a brother, and our mother and another sister. Our family dwells with grief in layer upon layer. You don’t get over those losses. But we are not crushed by our grief. In many ways the experiences have expanded our capacity for compassion. It is one thing that connects us with every other living person - there is grief ahead for every one of us.

Holy Week is, for me, a time of immersing myself in the realty of grief. It is a time when I don’t avoid thinking about death. It isn’t primarily about a particular set of intellectual concepts and ideas, but it is a time of feeling connected to God. To love so much that you embrace even the pain of loss and the grief of death is the essence of being human. That is how much God loves. That is how much we are loved.

So we take this week one day at a time. It never feels natural. It never feels “right.” It is, however, inescapable. It is the essence of being human. No matter how great the social distance, we go through this together.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!