“How lonely sits the city, that once was full of people!” That is the first verse of today’s first lesson (Lam 1:1-12). Most Americans are urban dwellers. Many of those live in stacked apartments behind closed doors. And our streets are empty, or should be. Did we ever think we would see our streets so desolate? There are some joys in this. Pollution is down. We can hear the birds.
“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals, all her gates are desolate, her priests groan (Lam 1:4a).” Will the youth culture of want-and-get return? Sixty-hour weeks to slave for promotion? Long commutes? All normal again?
“All her people groan as they search for bread: they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. (Lam 1:1a)” Have you gone shopping lately? Have you been baking? Not the Holy Bread, yet, but our own nourishing bread? Good luck finding flour. And yeast? Not a chance. Yes, maybe, at black market prices on eBay. How soon before the food chain breaks?
“Look, O Lord, and see how worthless I have become (Lam 1:11b).” Will the triage begins and the old and infirm are assigned body bags before they breathe their last? Alone in a hospital corridor?
Yesterday we celebrated Palm Sunday. This year there was no decorated church and the people waving palm fronds. Perhaps a bit of green during a broadcast of a liturgy. And today it is only Monday in Holy Week. No Triduum. No Maundy Thursday, no foot washing, no agape meals. No stripping the altar. No all-night vigil with the reserve Sacrament. Good Friday, and no venation of the Cross. No telling the Story, where we all confess, “Crucify him, crucify him.” No Holy Saturday, silent, empty, except for the Altar Guild and clerical staff running themselves ragged preparing for the Great Easter Vigil. And then Easter. And no baptisms. It is only Monday and all that will be on hold, or shared with a shaky wi-fi feed, as we will reach for each other in a new way.
Today’s Gospel, Mark 11:12-25, tells of Jesus coming upon a fig tree, out of season, doing what the tree’s Creator meant for it to do out of season. It was barren. And Jesus curses it, and at the end of the narrative, it is indeed dead. I know it is a symbol of Temple worship, but I feel sorry for the fig tree. After cursing the tree, Jesus goes to the Temple and sets in motion his arrest and death. He kicks out all the vendors of sacrificial animals and the money changers who provide proper coinage for the Temple tax. I know it was necessary and symbolic, but I also feel sorry for those poor souls who have been trying to make a living at a holy job. But it was time to clean house. Jesus says to them, as he upturns tables and sets free the animals penned for slaughter, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers (Mk 11:17).” Have we not made our temples a den of robbers? To pay the bills, our sacred spaces have long been available to be rented out for a wide variety of social and artistic projects, not necessarily immoral, but not really the purpose of our churches.
But then something happened. The COVID-19 pandemic. We were locked out of our temples. The virus had inadvertently kicked over the tables and set free the Sacrificial Lamb. And the internet exploded with not only various Sunday services, but podcasts of the Daily Offices. People were praying again as the wider church, the Church Universal. Meditations from the great churches and cathedrals were not filled with worked-over crypto-Buddhism or New Age notions, but drawn from Scripture and the writings of our saints. We were beginning to find our heart, our center, our roots. We were again looking towards Jesus and prayer.
The book, The Archbishop’s Test, by E. M Green (Miss Edith Mary Green, 1858-1924), was first published in England in 1914. In this charming fantasy, the new Archbishop of Canterbury orders that the Rubrics of the Prayer Book (still the 1662) be strictly obeyed, which in England he had the Canonical right to do. He ordered dissolved all societies and meetings – the Women’s Auxiliary, the Scouts and Girl Guides, the lot. With sly humor the author follows the political and social pushback. And the Archbishop persists, saying, “The Church in this country has failed because we have tried to run it on the conventions of society – with respectability thrown in,” and “We must be more spiritual, not less, if we are to win back England.” Yes, we can chortle, but Miss Green’s point, probably from a lifetime living in her father’s vicarage, was that the church had been overwhelmed responding to minor crises, answering letters, and attending meetings, and that, by and large, nobody cared about the church much in terms of prayer and salvation. During this two-year period, despite resistance and doubt, little by little, more and more ordinary people began to drop into their churches for services, early mornings, and evenings, as well as Sundays. Tenant farmers, shop girls, servants and their mistresses. By the end no one wanted to return to the old way. The Church had become a central part of their lives, and their lives had new meaning.
In Green’s pleasant world, the Church had lost her bearings, but had rediscovered the Way. I think the lesson would hold today. Is our faith from the immediacy of God’s love? Has modern life and the needs of running the church as an organization overwhelmed the inner life? Have we lost something essential? Notice what we have gained. A recognition that God has not abandoned us. We have nothing to fear. We are never alone. Once famine meant death. Drought meant death. But we still have food, and water, and power. But now we have joined the rest of humanity throughout history who knew that death was always hovering right behind us. Not hidden in nursing homes, but in our homes. It is time to both toughen up, and to be more vulnerable. Tough, to begin to remember that Jesus also suffered horrible pain and death in order to give us forgiveness and life. And to accept the suffering of this time, with calm and gratitude. Vulnerable enough to accept his gift and the love of his Father, our Father. We have gained time alone to pray, time with our nearest and dearest (yes, I include my cats, God’s sweet creatures). To eat together, to withstand the unknown together, to take joy together. And we have been taught that those of us granted the grace to spend those long days serving the suffering are doing God’s work. Let us not throw all that away. This is our Holy Week. It is precious to our Saviour. And he will, and has already, risen again.
The pandemic has awakened the desire and need to pray. Sunday meetings are difficult, governed by bandwidth. But we need to examine what we have gained and as well as what we have lost, even as the list of the lost grows. Maybe we shouldn’t go back to the pre-pandemic normal. Maybe, as in Green’s tale, we might consider rethinking who we are and what our purpose is in gathering as Church.
“Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise (Ps 51:16)”
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.