My friends were posting cute pictures of their kids all dressed up for “church at home” this past Sunday, waving their palm fronds, ready to watch a Palm Sunday livestream. I wished I could suck it up and pretend to be that cheerful, at least for the kids. But I couldn’t get myself to do it.
Our church and orders of service are precious to me, and our congregation. The things our pastors say, do, and wear are have been cultivated over centuries. We worship this way on purpose. Everything has a meaning, and has been carefully selected, debated among clergy and lay people, and thoughtfully placed.
Unlike the kinds of evangelical churches I grew up in, nothing in our services are random, or the production of one person, one church, one pastor, or locality. It is comprehensive, ordered, painstakingly thought through, the production of the whole church over centuries. It’s not just this way for some general service; this theological craftsmanship envelops the entire church year. Every Sunday and season has its place in an orchestrated tapestry. These centuries of labored love culminate in our highest holy days, this week.
Like Christians have for hundreds, thousands of years, our congregation is used to gathering and carrying out special, very specific, highly meaningful, and carefully ordered scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and services. They are rituals created by centuries of tradition, and thus exceedingly rich.
This humbling before our ancestors in the faith going back to the great apostles is a chief reason I left rootless evangelicalism to become Lutheran, which I consider catholic the way Catholics ought to be. I wanted to belong to something bigger and better than myself and my age. Something outside myself that instructs, shapes, and bends me, rather than being small and petty enough for me to shape and bend as I will. That’s what transcendance means.
It is also what respect and reverence mean: Not trashing one’s inheritance for ignorant and temporary comfort. This inheritance delivers what I need so badly — more than anything else, in fact. Christ’s own body and blood come to me as He did: physically. Incarnated. Embodied. The manner in which we take God himself into our own bodies matters, and that we do so is necessary to our faith and eternal life. My religion teaches this, and I believe it.
So this week especially, I feel each additional tradition destroyed by “social distancing” edicts as a fresh wound. On Palm Sunday we do not stand around faking church over a livestream. We gather in the narthex of our church and cry “Hosanna!” — Jesus, save us! As people have for thousands of years, starting right before Christ’s very eyes as he rode on a real-life donkey to his death. With them, across time, we join, waving our own palm branches, shouting his name.
Not this week. Despite our excellent church musicians’ best attempts to make the livestream as good as it could be, it was still a livestream. Not even the most glorious playing when recorded can be better than the in-person event, as anyone who has ever bought tickets for a concert knows full well. It was us in our houses, alone, watching our pastor alone at the altar.
Then I realized afresh it will be the same on Maundy Thursday, when we celebrate Christ’s creation of the sacrament and the church closes enveloped in silence and darkness; on Good Friday, when we spend three hours in church singing the gospels and playing the part of those who betray God himself; and on Easter Sunday, when all the rejoicing of our liturgy comes back into the service after eight weeks of their absence, and the repentance blossoms into resurrection.
“This is crap,” I muttered to myself over and over again, seething. It wasn’t in bitterness at our dear pastors and musicians putting together several dozen services of no more than 10 people each so congregants can still take the sacrament of the altar. It was in bitterness at public officials who allow unlimited numbers of people to congregate at grocery stores while either banning or strictly limiting public access to sacraments and worship that comprise the most important food that can ever exist.
They consider mortal food important enough to allow full access to unlimited people, but immortal food a mere frippery of which the people can be starved. It’s not just public officials, either — it’s plenty of so-called religious leaders, who are no spiritual shepherds at all if they so lightly deny their sheep their most desperately needed sustenance, especially in a time of great national and global need. Feed my sheep, indeed.
It is a true and deep loss to be forced from our churches during Holy Week. Very few thoughts offered any comfort from these angry musings. But I began to remember that the church has other traditions besides the ones my heart and soul cling to and love. A tradition as old as the church itself, declared by Christ himself: of self-denial, deprivation, and persecution. I have to confess, I don’t like that tradition as much, but I can’t deny it exists.
“Because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you,” Jesus told his disciples. “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
But rejoice. For “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
For centuries, and even now, countless Christians have been locked in prisons, in pits, in torture chambers. They have also been denied Christ’s body and blood, and even the ability to read Bibles. They have lacked pastors, and their pastors have lacked instruction. Unlike our rich American churches, they have had no money for vestments, for crucifixes, for hymnals. Their pastors have been unpaid and hunted. They are forced to church in houses all the time, if not underground, and those houses are raided and their occupants sent to concentration camps.
Christ has not forgotten one of them. He sustains their faith, just as he sustains ours.
He’s commanded us to take the sacrament and assemble for worship, so we should, because spiritual life is more important than physical life. And discrimination against religion is both wrong and against our nation’s laws. But our souls ultimately belong to Christ, who purchased them with his precious blood. Nothing can take them from his hand. “Take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife; let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.”
No tomb, no grave, no politician, no religious leader, no devil, no sin, and no army could stop His resurrection. And one day everyone in the history of creation will see with our own eyes the final Easter, when all the faithful will rise from the dead forever. Not one government edict, nor the very gates of Hell, can stop that Easter from coming either, nor prevent its greatest, most sacred, and neverending celebration.