Palm Sunday: Holy Week in Quarantine

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Our Savior’s sign for a pandemic – and for Holy Week.

Matthew 21:1-11

As I told the folks gathered on Zoom this morning for our South Hadley community Holy Week service, I need to begin by saying something obvious: this Holy Week is not like other Holy Weeks. 

What we should be doing right now is gathering with our actual palm branches. But we cannot do that this year. Instead, most of us are stuck inside, maybe alone, or maybe stuck with the same people we’ve now been stuck with for weeks. 

When this all first started, we wondered if we might be overreacting. We thought it might not last more than a couple of weeks. But quickly we realized that this was not the case. Quickly, we realized that we were not going to spend Palm Sunday, Holy Week, or even the first Sunday of Easter together. Instead, we are stuck inside while the economy seems to be tanking and the only things people seem to be buying are toilet paper and liquor. 

No, this is not a normal Holy Week. 

While it may be somewhat comforting to remember that we are not the first to experience an abnormal Holy Week — wars and plagues have disrupted these holy days before — it doesn’t lessen our pain at being apart. It probably does little to lessen our anxiety, either.

So what do we do? 

I have only one answer: we live the story. We live the story together like we always do, but also not like we always do. 

We live this story every single year because it is our story. This year, more than any other in recent memory, we need to be shepherded by God from death into life. 

This story takes us to another time in history when people were anxious. Israel was occupied by the Romans, and life was uncertain. The Romans killed troublemakers. And Jesus, on this Palm Sunday, rides directly into the belly of the beast, not unlike our healthcare workers are doing every single day they go to work. 

The disciples go behind him and they watch the crowds adore him, shouting their Hosannas. 

This is a good time to remember that we are not the first to be anxious. We are not the first to not know what is going to happen next. We are not the first to fear death for ourselves or those we love. That feeling of dread that you occasionally feel in the pit of your stomach these days when you read the news? Those disciples on the road on that first Palm Sunday felt that too. 

This story is our story.

I’m not going to claim that observing this Holy Week will offer you any magical protection. Much like the disciples, we will be, and remain, as vulnerable as ever. But observing this week might just teach you something about love in the midst of chaos. It might just teach you something about death and new life. And as millions around the world still observe these holiest days of our faith, it may somehow help you to not feel so alone. 

Much like we do every year, we will go day by day. If you want daily prayer this week, the National Cathedral is a great option. I’ll post a link on our Facebook page today. Or you can just read from your Bible and pray yourself, day by day. Then we’ll go day by day together through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. We will do through this pandemic what the disciples did through the very first Holy Week: despite our anxiety, we will go day by day. We will do the next right thing as best we know it. The disciples were not perfect that week, nor shall we be, but together, we will be moved by God from death into life. 

This story — the story of Holy Week — is our story. 

My friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in Seattle, quoted from an article this week by Aisha S. Ahmad called “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure.” She writes, “Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened.”

The disciples lived through something like that, too. They may not have realized its scale at the time, much like we didn’t realize the scale of this pandemic at first. Our lives will be different after this, but our observation of this story will stay the same, reminding us, regardless of our circumstances, every single year, that we are not alone and that new life is always on its way.

So go outside and find yourself a branch. We cannot be together this year, and the palms that we ordered will unfortunately have to go directly to being dried to be burned as next year’s Ash Wednesday ashes. But instead of staying sad about that, I’m choosing to celebrate the promise of another year and another journey from ashes to fire — one that, God willing, we can make truly together.

This week, as we experience this story that is our story, rest in knowing that you are not the first to not know the future. You are not the first to feel fear. You are not the first to feel besieged or in crisis. And you are not the first to be led by God from death into the new life of Easter and springtime. 

This Holy Week will not be like other Holy Weeks. But it will be one to remember, and it will be one where we remembered more clearly than we have in recent memory: this story is our story. Amen.

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