Once upon a time the people rejoiced. And they thought they had it all figured out. Life was pretty good. They had a lot of hope for the future. They had plans and agendas and thought they knew what was coming next. They celebrated.
And then seemingly overnight, everything crumbled. What they thought they understood turned upside down and inside out. The world seemed unfamiliar and strange. The comfortable narrative they’d embraced — how it was all going to turn out ok – suddenly seemed laughingly implausible, completely unrealistic, and hopelessly naïve.
The world grew very dark indeed. Very, very small. They huddled inside, worried and fearful and uncertain if it was safe to come out. They felt sheepish and silly for believing in something bigger than themselves; sheepish and silly for thinking they understood how the world out there worked and what might come next.
Once upon a time… in A.D. 30 or in A.D. 2020.
Last week on Palm Sunday, the Surgeon General warned the American public that the week ahead would be “the hardest moment for many Americans in their entire lives,” comparing it to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Though I tend to think this is hyperbolic, I don’t bring it up to try to discuss whether it is true or false. What most struck me was the timing; the week over which he made this pronouncement.
The “once upon a time” week when Christians journey from the exalted mountain-top moment of their king’s entry into the political center of Jewish society where his follwers were sure he was going to help them come out on top… to the trenches of betrayal and suffering and death and devastated hope. Of course, it doesn’t end there. It ends with the improbable testimony of a woman racing back to tell the fearful disciples that the impossible had become real. ‘He’s alive.’ It’s Christendom’s roller coaster week; the week upon which all our hopes are pinned. Which, for all of my life, we’ve commemorated by eating ham, wearing new frilly dresses with uncomfortable shoes, giving our children baskets full of chocolate from a giant stuffed bunny and hiding plastic eggs in our yard. (And no, that’s never really made sense to me.)
But not this year.
This year we’ll be hunkered down at home, a little fearful and more than a little overwhelmed; still a bit shell-shocked by how quickly it all came down around us. C.S. Lewis once observed “no one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” We’re realizing no one ever told us that either. Or maybe we just weren’t paying attention. Though we’re trying to stay present in the story of the week, we’ll be wondering if the curve has flattened yet. Some of us are looking at the changes in our democracy and economy and wondering if we get to come back from this ‘handing over’ of our freedom. Some of us are wondering if we’ll have a job when this is all over or if we’ll have to move or if our kids’ best friend will have to move. Some of us are wondering if we’ll have enough to pay the rent or the mortgage or how we’ll buy groceries if we haven’t been at work. This week, we may spend some time wondering if the grocery store will have toilet paper the next time we go or when we will be allowed to visit our Great Aunt in her nursing home. This week, we’ll be grieving and lamenting and worrying about the sick and hurting and we’ll be missing the life we had “before” – wondering if we ever get to go back to the one where we took for granted a communal bowl of chips and salsa at a restaurant and shaking hands with the greeter at church.
Which is to say: this year, we’re a people who collectively have a whole lot more in common with those early followers of Jesus than we’ve ever had before.
Easter is going to look so different this year. As an act of love, followers of Jesus across the country are laying down our “right to gather” in group worship to support the efforts of our community and medical leaders in their fight against this virus. And though we can add this to the long list of things I never expected to say: given the circumstances, the fact that churches across our country will be empty on Easter morning is actually a beautiful thing. It looks a lot like Jesus to me. (After all, he was never much concerned with gathering everyone in church.) Democracy works best (indeed, it only works) when we self-govern and self-sacrifice for the sake of the common good. Fighting a virus with a democracy is messy indeed, but if we followers of Jesus elevate “loving our neighbor as ourselves” over our “rights,” we can help lead our communities through the trenches.
Easter might look different, but emotionally it might be the truest of our lifetimes. This week, we have an opportunity to truly journey to the cross in every possible way. We can feel it all: The anger. The denial. The despair. The shock. The horror. The fear. The foolishness. The longing. The grief. And there it is… buried underneath it all but more powerful still: the improbable-but-tenacious hope. Grace for the day.
One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way: “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.”
Will politicians argue and point fingers and will news anchors lead us straight to full-fledged panic? Yes. Will nurses and doctors grow weary and reuse “disposable” PPE? Yes. Will people die alone and will funeral homes struggle to keep up? Yes. Will jobs be lost and small businesses fold? Yes. Will savings be wiped out in one market nosedive? Yes. Will we fight over toilet paper? Evidently yes.
Here is the world. Terrible things will happen.
Will volunteers pass out lunches to school children? Yes. Will teachers create online educational plans seemingly overnight? Yes. Will families go on walks together and do puzzles together and stay up late watching old Adams Family episodes together? Yes. Will we call our grandmas more? Yes. Will we check on our elderly neighbors and offer to pick up a few things for friends at the store and share what we have? Yes. Will we begin making homemade masks? Yes. Will we fill our sidewalks with messages of hope and solidarity and more ‘stained glass’ than any cathedral? Yes.
Here is the world. Beautiful things will happen.
Don’t be afraid. Why? Because he remains with us. Even the worst things we can imagine don’t separate us from his love and care. Even when we don’t quite feel it, he’s there.
We are unafraid not because we have a magic formula to make all the terrible things go away. We are unafraid because we have a road-map and a guide through the fear. Holy Week offers us a map of grace; directions that take us from hosanna to denial to despair to hope.
And we have an opportunity this year to be really honest in the journey; we don’t jump straight to the empty tomb of Easter. We need to sing hosanna and then lament and cry and mourn before we sing hosanna again. It is the story of being human and our pathway to redemption. For in this journey we find grace for our humanity, in all our messy moments of fearful faithlessness, and the steady presence of a savior who promises strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. (Which is, incidentally, a hymn I loved singing as a little girl in my Easter best.)
Because once upon a time, in A.D. 30 or in A.D. 2020, the story didn’t (doesn’t) end with the huddled fearful. It doesn’t (didn’t) end in darkness. Because then came the dawn. And the echoing shouts of something miraculous and the sparkle of something unexpected and the realization settling deep in the people’s hearts that even if everything they thought precious was lost, hope itself wouldn’t — no, couldn’t — die.