Get ready for the strangest Holy Week we may have ever seen.
Easter is one of the two biggest days of the year for attendance in most churches, and many churches normally have several special services in the week leading up to it. Palm Sunday can be particularly festive: church members receive palm branches, which we wave in celebration, perhaps singing “Hosanna in the Highest.” My church has a special service on Holy Wednesday, called Tenebrae. Then, there is Holy Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday in some churches, when we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of holy communion. My church has two services on Good Friday, including a three-hour afternoon service where four members share personal testimonies of “What the Cross Means to Me” and we reflect on how Jesus took our sins upon Himself by dying for us. The week’s worship can be very intense, ranging from celebratory and joyful to somber and repentant to reflective and meditative.
Then comes Easter Sunday, a day of great celebration in most churches. While every Sunday should be a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection (indeed, every day should be), Easter is especially glorious. Some people come to church only twice per year, on Christmas and Easter. My church can be standing-room-only on Easter.
However, this year will be different. The coronavirus pandemic has canceled services throughout the country. Here in the New York City metropolitan area, “ground zero” of the outbreak in America, gatherings of 10 or more people are currently prohibited. Instead of a packed house, our pastor and a small group of worship leaders will have a service with no congregation, to be streamed online for those who choose to watch. It will be one of the few churches on Long Island to provide communion: congregants will drive up to the front of the church to receive the bread and a blessing. We will also receive our palms with communion today, and will also live-stream the other Holy Week services. Our church includes a foot-washing ceremony as part of the Maundy Thursday evening service: I am not sure how that will play out online!
Many churches are live-streaming their worship services like we are, but few are offering communion. Some churches may find it difficult to minister to their people at all.
Holy Week will have a big hole in it without corporate worship. I feel like an online video worship service with curbside communion is better than nothing, but it is not the full worship experience. There is something about being in the church, surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, uniting in praise and worship, especially when some of us are going through hard times and need to be surrounded by friends.
While many of us are used to speaking of our personal relationship with Jesus, social distancing reminds us that it really is more of a familial relationship with God. My relationship with God is not separated from others’ relationships with Him. While it is true that we can worship God alone, there is an added benefit when we worship Him with the rest of the family of God.
We need each other. We inspire each other. We challenge each other. We pray for each other. In spite of our differences, and sometimes especially because of those differences, we gain a blessing through corporate worship.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version).
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
The biblical account of Jesus’ last week reminds us that humans are social beings. We live, worship, eat, and survive in a group. Jesus entered Jerusalem with His disciples. He cleared the money changers from the temple as His disciples looked on. He spent almost every moment of His final week with those 12 men, including that Last Supper. Perhaps a particularly painful part of His crucifixion was that fact that He died almost alone. One disciple betrayed Him, one denied knowing Him, and most of the rest scattered into hiding and left Him alone. Only His mother, Mary Magdalene, and John stayed with Him until the end.
Jesus’ last week also reminds us that we can be powerfully influenced by our social group, for good or ill. On Palm Sunday, the crowd welcomed Him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Five days later, the crowd would change its tune and shout, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22-23). We can only wonder how many people were in both crowds, inspired by the disciples on Sunday but swayed in the opposite direction by the chief priests and Pharisees on Friday. We think of peer pressure as a problem that affects only young people, but all of us can be affected by those around us, for good or ill.
As we approach Holy Week altered by social distancing, we must each decide how we will remain connected to the Body of Christ. Perhaps you can call a friend on the phone or set up a Skype session so that you can encourage one another during this stressful time and pray together. Some people are using Zoom or other online apps to gather a group virtually. Social distancing may force us to adapt how we fellowship, but it does not have to force us into spiritual and emotional isolation. It may change how we worship during Holy Week, but it does not have to keep us from worshiping God at a time when we really need Him most.
Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.