Preparing for Holy Week in the Age Covid-19

By Kris Bruun

I have always loved Holy Week. I grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin when the culture in such places was still imbued with religious practices. (The Wisconsin population at that time was heavily churched, split equally between Lutherans and Catholics.)

One of my earliest memories is of the Good Friday closings. From noon till three in the afternoon, all of the businesses shut down so that the church-goers, by far the majority of the town’s population, could attend the afternoon services. Whether I went to church or stayed at home, I remember the deep stillness that settled over the town, a stillness like no other.

It hasn’t been like that for a while, although in my part of the country the schools close on Good Friday. One year the company I work for expected us to take inventory on Holy Saturday, which would have meant a lot of overtime in the preceding week. I complained loudly, and the manager got that date changed, but for the most part, life goes on without anyone noticing the significance of this week.

I, however, always take some of my vacation days on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Monday. These days only come around once a year, and I want to bask in them.

Easter was the first feast celebrated by the new Church, aside from regular Sunday gatherings. A vigil of readings and prayers began on Saturday evening, and went on all night. Just as the sun rose, the community finished by sharing the bread and wine that their risen Savior had left them. Over time, a more elaborate worship service developed including adult baptisms, the renewal of baptismal promises, the kindling of a new fire, and the lighting of the Easter candle from which all of the newly baptized received their light.

Over the centuries, the great vigil stretched out and became three days, each with its own emphasis. So Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter (either the vigil on Saturday or Easter Sunday) are really one long service, with breaks in between (to give us time to go home, sort out our Easter baskets, and baste the Easter ham).

The pastor of my little congregation tried bringing back the Easter vigil service for two years, and it didn’t fly. So he gave up; which means that on Holy Saturday, I’m free to join a congregation that has a strong and robust tradition of the Easter vigil. I start scouting around the middle of Lent.

Except that this year, on the day I started tiptoeing through the internet to track down a good service, a local pastor was diagnosed with Covid-19, his church was closed to be disinfected, and all of their services were cancelled for at least two weeks.

It was also the day that the German chancellor announced that before all was said and done, she expected that 60-70% of the German population will have been infected.

The infection rate in the U.S. jumped up by an additional few hundred. Someone from the Center for Disease Control explained patiently that all of the precautions that people are taking, either voluntarily or otherwise, such as deferring travel plans, closing schools, or accepting 14-day quarantines, would not stop the infection from spreading. It would, they hoped, slow it down, so that when it arrived full bore, they would be better prepared to deal with it.

In 1919, during the flu pandemic–which actually killed more people than died in World War I–the churches were closed. Medical teams did not have the tools at their command that we do now. They lacked not only vaccines, but antibiotics to fight the secondary infections that often follow the flu, and which are the real killers.

I have one sister who is severely immuno-compromised. It’s kind of a miracle that she has lived as long as she has. Covid-19 could be a real challenge for her. And yet I know that, by the roll of the dice, she may not contract the disease, and one of the others of us, myself included, may be stricken.  

I think that this is the aspect of the pandemic that causes the most fear. Covid-19 is, in some ways, random. It is out of our control. It is silent and unseen. It brings into the light the shared mortality that is at the heart of our life on earth. We don’t confront it very often, but now we have to.

Yet should not we Christians, of all people, do what we can do, that is, take practical steps and be at peace with the outcome? We have, after all, been down this road before.

On Maundy Thursday, we are called to love one another as Jesus has loved us, to serve one another, as he did, even in the face of impending death.

On Good Friday, we remember one who went willingly to his death for us. We are thankful for what he did, and we also share in that calling.

On Easter, we renew the promises we made (or that were made for us) in our baptism, and we rejoice in the promise we again receive: that the instruments of death have no ultimate power over us.

Not even Covid-19.

Holy Week is four weeks away. It would be unrealistic to think that whatever is happening now would not be even more intense by then. Depending on where we are in the country, our entire community may be watching Holy Week services on the internet.

Wherever and however I get to celebrate that one long service from Maundy Thursday through the Feast of the Resurrection, I’ll be humming the Taize chant, taken from Luke 23:42: 

“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” 

And remembering Jesus’ answer: “Behold, this day you shall be with me in paradise.”

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