Holy Week 2021

Holy Week 2020 didn’t turn out the way we expected. For almost a year we had been planning what we were calling the biggest blues night ever. Of course the blues isn’t what comes to mind first for most Christians when they think of Holy Week, but in recent years we had found that turning to the classic music form had helped us find expression for some of the emotions of the powerful week in the lives of Christians. Blues originated in the American South around thee time of the Civil War. It is a unique combination of spirituals, work songs, chants and ballads that reflect part of the African-American experience. You can’t separate music from culture and you can learn a lot about culture from music.

We called our night of music “Sittin’ with the Blues.” Sometimes you need to just sit with music and culture and experience them. Listening to the blues seems very appropriate in a time of grief, sorrow, sadness and loss.

Over the course of my career, I often referred to Holy Week as an opportunity to rehearse a universal human experience. Every human will experience loss and grief. Walking the events of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life allows Christians to think about our own mortality and the mortality of those we love in a unique way. It remind us that our faith is different from some systems of belief. Ours is not a religion of immortality. Christianity doesn’t promise that one will never die. Quite the contrary, our faith embraces the death of our savior and in that death discovers the meaning of salvation.

The distinction between immortality and eternity may seem subtle to some, but it is an important one. It is a distinction that many, including many Christian preachers, have missed. Religion has long played on human fear of death and religious leaders have often promised faithful people that they might escape death. It is something entirely different to tell people that they, like all others before them, are going to die.

Death, however, is not the end of the story.

Holy Week is not the end of the story of Jesus.

The pain and loss and sorrow and sadness and grief that we all experience is not the end of our story.

2020 is not the end of the story of our people, even though it was a year of incredible loss and grief. It was a year of far too much death and loss. And now, as we begin Holy Week 2021, our time has come to simply sit with our grief a bit. We don’t need to rush to Easter. We can allow the experiences of the year just passed to wash over us. As we approach 550,000 deaths in the US alone, there are too many personal stories, too many family tragedies, too many grieving communities for us to simply rush past the grief our our world. We would do well to sit with our grief.

Communities around the world are trying to find ways to express their grief and commemorate the loss. Back in October, artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg planted a white flag for each life lost to COVID-19 on the grounds of the Washington Armory. At the time the national death toll was 212,000. We remember the flags planted in the U.S. National Mall, each flag representing ten lives lost to the virus. Here in Washington, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as a musical tribute to COVID victims. The piece, often associated with grief and mourning, begins with a single B flat. We’ve heard it before when President Kennedy was assassinated. We think of grief and loss when the music touches us.

Sometimes we don’t want to hear another say “It is going to get better,” or “You’ll get over this.” Sometimes we need to just sit with our grief, acknowledge its reality and power, and sense that others are also touched by the loss.

It is that communal experience of grief that we have missed so much in our year of pandemic. We have sometimes felt that we are alone in our grief because we were not able to gather face to face. I have to admit that Palm Sunday feels very strange for me this morning. I’m preaching. It is a distinct honor to have been invited to deliver a Palm Sunday sermon and I feel grateful for the invitation. But it isn’t a live event. I recorded the sermon last Monday. Like the other members of our congregation, I’ll be watching it as part of the Facebook livestream of worship later this morning. And it won’t even be live. The worship service is a combination of real-time offerings and other parts that have been pre-recorded. That is the way we are worshiping these days. It is unsettling and unfulfilling for those of us whose lives have centered on in-person, face-to-face worship. There is grief in not being together to wave palm branches and listen to the excited voices of the children. There is grief in watching a screen instead of being able to sit in a sanctuary.

Our faith, however, does not lead us away from grief. It invites us to sit with our grief, to experience our losses, to count them as real and then to remember that we are not alone. Even in our isolation, we are not alone.

The words of the spiritual come to my mind:

Jesus walked this lonesome valley;
He had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else could walk it for him;
He had to walk it by himself.

That spiritual goes on to compare our journey of grief to Jesus’.

We must walk this lonesome valley;
We have to walk it by ourselves.
Oh, nobody else can walk it for us;
We have to walk it by ourselves.

The song, however, betrays its own lyrics. By acknowledging that Jesus has gone ahead of us, we understand that God will never abandon us. Even when we feel alone and cut off, we are not alone. Our faith is in God’s presence in every aspect of human experience, including death itself.

For this week, however, we are invited to simply sit with the loneliness and to experience the grief. It is not the end of the story, but it is the story for a few more days. Holy Week is upon us.