It’s been an unexpected and extraordinary Lent which has brought us to this Good Friday. Even though the COVID-19 curve appears to be flattening in Australia, this Holy Week road has still felt a lonely and anxious time for many. For those of us in the church the physical togetherness we are used to, in attending the many church services which makes this season so special, has been taken away from us.
During this time we’ve seen the least palatable side of our humanity, in terms of fear bringing out human stockpiling instincts to the disregard of the needs of others and the flagrant ignoring by some people for the self distancing measures required of us at this time. We’ve also seen the very best of human motivation and action as nurses, doctors caregivers’ work untold hours to save lives, others pack bags of groceries for those most vulnerable and forced to self isolate, and still others offer their gift and talents to free online cultural sessions.
At the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way……
For churches, and church services in particular, the pandemic has led to an emergence of creative responses. Unexpectedly many of us have gained a new respect for social platforms; they’ve been an aid to continue in celebrating our services at this time. In fact I could say for the first time in my life I celebrated Palm Sunday at St James Piccadilly in London, whilst simultaneously staying at home in Melbourne. Christian Services have been zooming and YouTubing around the world all Lent - never before have we been able able to celebrate different liturgies inside so many different churches. That there is only a priest and a cantor or one or two others are present inside the churches or sacred spaces, are stark reminders to us that this isolation we experience is a globally shared one.
The COVID-19 Pandemic discriminates against no-one and surges through all the continents of the earth. But so too, as more congregational services go online, and those of us privileged to have access to this invisible complicated web structure around our planet, so too are connections being made between many different Christian communities around our planet. The deep message of Christianity about God’s love also doesn’t discriminate; the message of Christ, whose love is so great as to be able to enter this time of desolation and suffering is one we participate in most poignantly of Good Friday. This message too is alive across continents.
I have found it very moving to be invited into a live Youtube of a church service in another congregation on the other side of our planet and to read, during the time of Gift of Peace at this service, the scrolling comments down the right hand side of the screen, comments by named parishioners to other named parishioners, hoping they are each okay, not too lonely, getting the provisions they need - generally checking up each is okay. We have used social media to connect with our own parishioners at this time, but we’ve also unwittingly been able to share something of our corporate faith life, our hospitality and our humanity with many strangers beyond our local community and day to day life. In opening up in this way, our own congregations have offered a real hospitality to Christians and others all around the world. This is one of the hidden unforeseen blessings of our Lenten journey this year.
Social media has opened us up to other places and people, but a solid sense of our own home is always the place we start. There is a traditional liturgy today, Good Friday, which happens in many Christian churches and ours here at St Peter’s Eastern Hill only on this day. It’s called the Veneration of the Cross. It begins with the clergy processing in solemn silence into the church. The night before, at the end of the Maundy Thursday service, the altar has been stripped bare, and so much that we hold sacramentally dear to us in our church - the embroidered altar cloths, the elaborately wrought candle sticks and candles, the reserved sacrament has been taken from the tabernacle on the altar and is now housed in the side chapel. The side chapel has been filled with flowers to represent the night spent by Christ with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. In many Christian churches parishioners have spent an hour or two in vigil over during that night, keeping watch with Christ, to enter a little that time of inner desolation.
And on Good Friday, when the priest with two other ordained ministers enter the church, they process down the aisle and when they reach the now denuded altar they lay down and prostrate themselves for some minutes before the empty tabernacle. Effectively now they are laying themselves bare before nothing.
It’s a powerful moment. Symbolically it’s an action that takes us back right to the beginning of Lent: Ash Wednesday, when each of us is daubed with a smudge of ash (those palm crosses now burnt to ash from last year) on our forehead. And, we are reminded that essentially this is who we are, where we’ve come from and where we go - ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
This year, when we are unable to gather to commemorate the passion, the trial and crucifixion of Jesus in this way because of the COVID-19 pandemic, remembering this action of prostrating before an empty tabernacle seems to be even more poignant. Because of the restrictions that are placed upon us to stay at home, we are geographically and physically removed from one another, but can even feel one more step further away from that place, that Garden of beautiful flowers in the small chapel in our church which housed overnight the sacrament that we long to be so close to. The sense of desolation before the cross can only be felt more acutely.
This action on Good Friday of a person in prostration before emptiness is not an act of self annihilation or surrender to despair. We may be made of clay and ash but there is something more going on. This prostration is not an action that diminishes us human beings, but conversely frees each person to be even more human. For it is an act of acknowledgement that we ourselves are not God, an acknowledgement that we are human and part of being human means there are times when we are subject to forces and mysteries outside our control. This act relieves us of the burden to be super-human. There is a bigger Spirit at work in all our lives. And in life itself we each of us walk with feet of clay.
Good Friday is one part of a whole season. Today we really touch the desolation and pain of Jesus on his road to the cross. In so doing we move a little closer in empathy to each other and each others pain. For many it will feel like Easter Day won’t come until we next get to sit down again to a meal with our wider family and friends. For others Easter Day won’t come at all again in this earthly life. We started our Lenten season nearly 6 weeks ago. But, it doesn’t really end even on Easter Sunday. There will be another linking church cycle after Easter, then Pentecost and so on. Next year, there will another Lent, another Easter. Just as the early Church Mothers and Fathers understood, we lay ourselves down, and we are raised up - again and again and again. It isn’t so much about the destination as the way we live and move and have our being in our journey.
So, in this time and space of whatever church community we find ourselves drawn to today, it is good to ponder how utterly extraordinary the nature of God’s Love for each of us is. In every sense of Charles Dickens’ words, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Drawing together in compassion we find a new closeness with one another and with strangers, an awe for the amazing gifts and talents others are sharing. The worst is the death toll, an added brutal pain being visited upon the homeless and those in refugee camps, housed in circumstances of domestic violence, the unemployment, the psychological, emotional and economic toll is enormous. But who is it that ultimately supports us in our pain and yearning?
It is Good Friday that tells us that even here is a place that has been entered into and fully known God. For even here is a place of creative birth, a place that has ongoing potential for a new deeper relationship with our God, who is Love, and who is Christ moving often unseen and unheard amongst us all.