One of the hidden graces of our stay-at-home Lent is the gift of being able to look through our virtual windows — our laptop or tablet screens — and connect with others. We’re staying together while all staying at home. Jere and I have spent time, with our grown children — sheltering in place in New York and DC — and with dear friends and family all over the country.
Lent Has Been More Set Apart This Year
Lent is meant to be a time of reflection and self-examination, set apart from the rest of the year. But this Lent has been more set apart than any other in my lifetime. What are your memories of Lent? This Lent has been a kind of liminal state — separated from our regular experience of daily life. Our Lent in Lockdown has been a paradox of tight restrictions amid absolutely boundless freedom. We stay inside our homes — even inside our rooms — for most of every day. But through our virtual windows — these internet communication devices we have — we wander and connect freely. It’s like Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are that I read that to the EDS kids online last week. On our screens, in this Lent unbounded by time or place, we sail off through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and over years, interacting with friends next door, across town, across the country, and even in time zones half a world away. We connect more regularly and more deeply with dear friends and family members, and we reconnect with old friends from decades ago and far away — almost without any sense of distance in time or space.
Another grace of our virtual connections during our stay at home order is that we can worship with friends in other communities. We’re all together now, but we’re also recorded. You can participate here, greeting others in our congregation in the comments, and join the Zoom Coffee Hour after the service. Then later, you can attend Easter Sunday worship at the National Cathedral. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is preaching, and maybe the largest virtual choir ever assembled is singing The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done!
Easter Vigil in Jerusalem
Yesterday afternoon, I joined Easter Vigil at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. It was 8:00 in the evening there — they’re 7 hours ahead of us. Through my iPad screen, I looked across 7,000 miles and 7 time zones into the dark courtyard as the dean kindled the Paschal Fire. From my study upstairs here, in the broad daylight of Newport, I was so very ready for Easter that I could almost smell the smoke of the fire. I peered through the shadows on my screen, waiting for the sparks and then the flames that would light the Paschal Candle and recall the story of our faith. Emmanuel has held Easter Vigil in the past, although maybe not for a while. Vigil starts with the Paschal Fire, kindled outside the church. The Paschal Candle is lit from the fire, while a cantor sings the Exultet, a song of love and longing for the light of hope that brings us out of the darkness.
Maybe the unbelievably authentic Lent we have just experienced can give us a new understanding of the chaos and disorientation of Holy Week that the disciples were feeling. Maybe we are more ready this year to hear good news, and to hear about the empty tomb in a way that is more personal and real to us.
Think of the events we’ve read and prayed about for the past week:
— Jesus riding down the Mount of Olives on Mama Donkey, while the Roman governor marches in from the coast with an army of soldiers.
— Jesus washing his disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday after the Last Supper, where he takes bread, blesses, breaks, and shares it with his disciples, telling them to keep that practice up after he’s gone.
— Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane in utter anguish, knowing he must go forward to his death, but also feeling the fear of his humanity.
— Jesus being tried, mocked, tortured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death, dragging his cross in agony through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha.
— Jesus dying on the cross while the disciples fled and the Marys watched and wept.
— Jesus being anointed by the Marys and laid in Joseph of Arimathea’s rock-cut tomb.
From the Perspective of Lockdown
From the new perspective of our Lockdown Lent, separated from the usual schedules of work, school, family, friends, sports, and projects, we can see how incredibly disorienting this time must have been for all those around Jesus. Nothing was like it always had been. None of the plans were on schedule, or looked like they would happen at all. Their story just wasn’t unfolding as they thought it would. And just when it started looking bad, things got even worse.
In our gospel reading today, it’s a Sunday. For Jews — like Jesus, Mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene — it was the first work day of the week.
Their world has just been turned upside down — in a strange confrontation between the Roman occupying power and the local leaders — who were only allowed to have authority over things that didn’t matter very much to the Roman Empire — Jesus is crucified. Mother Mary has lost her son, Mary Magdalene her beloved friend, and the disciples their political, moral, and religious leader — all to a violent and unjust death at the hands of government. Everything was uncertain. Who would lead them? Who would teach them? Who would break the hold of the occupying Roman power on their lives? Who might be next to die? They were unsettled, disoriented, terrified, and likely depressed.
It’s in that state of unreality — out of time, off schedule, not knowing what will happen next — that Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene went to see the tomb. They feel a great earthquake as an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, rolled back the stone in front of Jesus’ rock-cut tomb. Rock-cut tombs were labor-intensive, and therefore expensive. They were the luxury of a rich man in the Holy Land in Jesus’ time. There are several in the rock quarry where Jesus was crucified and buried, all now inside the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. My surprise when I saw a rock-cut tomb for the first time is that the stone rolled in front of the opening to the tomb is like a big, round, rolling door. The rock is a hewn disc — about a foot thick, and about 3 feet in diameter. They are rolled back and forth across the front of a rounded opening to cover or uncover the opening. It would take two strong men to roll the door. After the Marys feel the earthquake, they see the angel sitting on top of the rock disc. He appeared suddenly, like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
Just in case later readers — like us — might question whether the Marys were imagining things in their grief and fear, Matthew’s gospel gives them at least two — and possibly more — big, strong, reliable male witnesses: For fear of the angel, Matthew’s gospel tells us, the guards shook and became like dead men. Nothing at all was going as people expected.
The angel tells the Marys not to be afraid, that Jesus isn’t in the tomb and gives them the plan: Go tell the guys, the angel says, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and get yourselves up to Galilee quickly. Jesus will meet you there. As they leave the tomb, scared out of their wits and overjoyed at the same time, they meet Jesus and he speaks to them, repeating the angel’s instruction about getting up to Galilee.
After the disorientation, fear, and grief of our Lent under COVID, I can really relate to the disciples’ and the Marys’ fear, confusion, and need for light to shine into the darkness. Maybe I am coming from Good Friday and Holy Saturday — from the dark space by the rock-cut tomb. My father died this last Tuesday of Holy Week, and was buried on Good Friday. Maybe I have walked more closely with the Marys this Holy Week because of the timing of my personal experience.
But maybe all of us share a different perspective this year, because of our dislocation in time, schedule, and expectation. Our plans have changed, our story is not turning out like we thought it would. Many schools will reopen this school year, graduations have been postponed, and weddings have been rescheduled. We are disoriented, maybe scared, and we don’t know what to expect. And we ache — just ache — for the hope and light of Easter.
And just like that, it’s here. It may be a while yet before we are out of our houses and don’t have to keep physical distance, but Jesus is risen and walking among us. Even — and especially — in these disorienting times, the graces of community, and caring for one another, bring new life and affirm God’s presence.
And even though it may be a while yet before we are out of our houses and back to our regular schedules and lives, there are things we can see and know about the resurrection. You may have noticed a low motor sound as we’ve worshiped here for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and now Easter. That holy hum is the incubator from Casey Farm. We’re hatching baby chicks in about 16 days, and I am the Mother Hen during our time of EDS Online. And we’re sprouting seeds for the garden, inside in sunny windows. The children show me how their beans and lettuce and flowers are sprouting in starter trays every morning, ready to be planted outside as the weather warms.
Even thought it’s already Easter, sometimes it just takes a little longer to see the change. Jesus tells the Marys to send the disciples up to Galilee to see what will happen next. And we wait a little longer for the eggs to hatch — or for the seeds to sprout — but Easter has come. Amen