April 14, 2020
Dear and Beloved Faithful,
Entering into these all-revered and holy days as individuals or as individual families has a very surreal character to it. Even the events described in the gospel have a persistent motif of synaxis, of “coming together.” It can be seen throughout: the Jews assemble in Jerusalem for the Passover, the mourners gather to comfort Mary and Martha, the disorderly mob of children bursts forth from the gates of Jerusalem to meet Jesus, Jesus teaches the “crowds” in the Temple, he assembles his disciples to eat the Passover, the Jews gather a mob to seize him in the night, the high priests assemble their midnight tribunal to pass sentence, Pilate holds court in the presence of the crowds, and so on. From the beginning until the end, most everything done in the gospel accounts of Holy Week is done in some sort of assembly or gathering. And so it feels odd to us that we are not assembling to behold these things and contemplate them in the midst of the Church, our assembly and synaxis. But, as all know by now, this is not how we will observe these days this year.
This year has an utterly different character, and it is something that—by God’s grace and mercy—we will only experience once in our lives; this year we contemplate these things alone.
But in a certain sense, our aloneness can also bring us closer to Christ’s own experience of these days, for surely Jesus often experienced a profound loneliness in this week, an ache in his heart, and a wistful desire that things might be different. As he draws near to Jerusalem, surrounded by the crowds singing “Hosanna,” he bursts into tears, knowing that the very crowds who now call him their king will soon turn on him and reject him, to their own great harm (Luke 19:41). Likewise, even surrounded by his disciples, there is a certain loneliness. Well-meaning and loving as they are, they are still not listening to him, still not comprehending, still not truly believing that he is going to die. The image of Jesus’ aloneness in the midst of his disciples is captured profoundly in Gethsemane, when Jesus asks his disciples to keep vigil with him, but rather than praying, they all fall asleep. And this happens not once, but three times! They clearly do not understand the gravity of this night, or what it is that is about to take place!
After the betrayal in Gethsemane and the falling away of the disciples, Jesus’ aloneness becomes more pronounced. Now he is surrounded by his enemies: on trial before the chief priests, on trial before Herod, on trial before Pilate and the hate-filled mob, struck and outraged by the soldiers, thrust from the city, hoisted into the air, mocked and humiliated, stretched out and dying, naked in the presence of hate-filled eyes and jeering lips.
On the Cross, Christ’s aloneness reaches its climax. There, in the midst of the crowd, “as those in the heavens, and on the earth, and under the earth looked on” (Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Ch. 9), Christ is alone. And yet he is not alone; the Father is with him. Even if the sun and the moon turn away and hide their gaze for shame, the Father is with him. As the Lord Jesus cries out the beginning of the psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” he begins to feel its ending, wherein it is written that God, “Has not despised or scorned the suffering of the Afflicted One; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:1,24). Because he is completely certain of the Father’s presence and deliverance, Christ has the assurance to say to the wise thief, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Then, after the crucifixion, there is the grave, where Christ—perhaps for the first time in all of Holy Week—is truly alone in the body. And yet he is not alone. He is never truly alone, nor will he ever truly be alone. His body lies in the tomb. But in his spirit, he is actively preaching “to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). As the divine Son of God he sits on the throne with his Father, a throne which he never left. He is truly present, as he promised, with the thief in Paradise. And now, about to become “the firstborn of the dead” (Col. 1:18), he is still everywhere present, still with all, still present in all things, whether things in heaven or things on earth or things below.
And this is joyful news to us indeed. Although in his earthly sojourn Christ truly enters into human loneliness, abandonment, and hurt, there is always a sense in which he is beyond these things. He is always with the Father, he is always with the Holy Spirit, he is always with the saints and—by his very nature, let alone his merciful grace—he is always with us as well. Even in these trials, even in this solitary Pascha, he is with us, just as he promised, saying, “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:20).
So, brothers and sisters, let us hold high the Feast in our hearts, for Christ is with us. Let us remember and revere these august days and greet the Feast of Feasts with joy, for where Christ is, there is joy. Let us banish sadness. Let us root out all self-pity. Christ is with us. Christ has slain death for us. Christ has opened for us the gates of Paradise. So let us offer our prayers as we are able and meditate on the Scriptures as we are able, and do as much as we are able, offering unto our God a “sacrifice of praise” to the best of our ability, just as we are called to do in more normal times.
May the Blessing of the Lord Abide on You All,