Palm Sunday, April 12, 2020
Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-8
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
In any other year, today would be the day of our peak attendance. In any other year, today we would see many people we have not seen perhaps for a long time, dressed up in beautiful new clothing, their children joyful and bearing in their hands palm branches and ornamental candles and rejoicing in the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
But this is not any other year. This is the year when instead of Palm Sunday and Pascha together, we have a pandemic, and we have it separate from one another. Coming together might literally kill some of us.
And here at the threshold of Holy Week, we just want it all to be okay. We just want to know that our separation from one another, our inability to greet the Bridegroom as He comes forth at midnight, our inability to receive Holy Unction together, our inability to sing together at the Lord’s tomb, our inability to rejoice together at the arising of the Lord and to shout into the night that Christ is risen, our inability to answer with all our souls and bodies the invitation from St. John Chrysostom to feast royally—that this is all somehow okay.
I’ve seen a lot of attempts to make it okay that we are mostly unable to be in church for Holy Week and Pascha, or to resolve the problem in some fashion.
On the one hand, there are those who are insisting that one can commune with Christ without actually receiving Holy Communion. There is of course some truth to this. The Lord is everywhere, even in our homes at this moment, and He does not withhold Himself from us because we are in a time of pandemic and must of necessity limit our movements and gathering, including coming to church. So some have gone so far as to say that whether we commune or not does not ultimately matter.
On the other hand, there are those who attempt to resolve this problem by simply demanding that it not happen at all. We should go to church, and God will protect us. Yet while you cannot get a disease from the Eucharist, there is no specific promise to Christians that you cannot get a virus from attending church.
Indeed, I just read this week that there were now dozens of infected monks at Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the great Monastery of the Kiev Caves, which has become the center of a local outbreak in the capital of Ukraine. And there are monks on Mount Athos who have contracted the virus. But knowing this, some even say that we should go to church even if it kills all of us.
But both of these approaches miss what I believe is the true opportunity for Christians who at this moment cannot come to church and cannot commune of our Lord’s life-giving Body and Blood.
It is the opportunity to lament, to mourn, to repent.
I will not blame anyone’s sin but my own for the current pandemic. All suffering is in the world through sin, not because God is hurling viral thunderbolts at us in retaliation, but because our sins cooperate with the work of demons and thus make human suffering possible. And so if it is my sin that is the channel through which suffering comes into the world—which means that I have victims—then it is my sin to which I must attend.
I may not be “to blame” for this pandemic in the sense of having performed an act that made the virus come into the world or infected that first person in China or spread it so rapidly to so many. But I still need to repent. Why? Because blame is not the point of repentance.
Repentance is to turn to God in lamentation and mourning for my own sin and for the sin that afflicts the world. It is to come back to Him, to pursue nearness with Him. It is not just about saying that I did something bad and now have to fix it. It is about a reorientation of my whole self to be toward God and for God and in God.
And one does not repent by trying to make things okay.
“Go to church no matter what!” is not repentance, not just because there is the actual possibility of harming someone else with that attitude, but because it is not an attitude that takes personal responsibility for sin and suffering. That attitude does not accept that our current global excommunication of sorts should be a time for us to take a step back and examine ourselves, to see how I am the Prodigal, how I am the apostate, how I am the Judas. Because I am.
And the attitude “we’re doing okay without communion” is also not repentance, not just because there is a dishonor given to the Lord’s Holy Mystery, but because it is the failure to see that communion in the fullest sense is actually the “normal” that we need as human beings. God Himself in the flesh gave us this Mystery, and while it is good to console someone who cannot receive it but desires to earnestly, do not console them with saying that their desire is essentially optional.
This is a time to lament, to mourn, to repent. Do not make arguments that short-circuit this moment of grieving. Do not try to make it okay. It’s not okay. Stop saying that it’s okay.
I am reminded of the things people say when someone dies, especially unexpectedly—“He’s in a better place,” “She’s an angel now,” “You’ll get over it,” “Life goes on,” etc. But all of these sayings are about a failure to look at death for what it is and to mourn, to grieve, to lament. And if there is anything that Lent and Holy Week are for, it is to encounter death, including the deathliness in ourselves in all its forms, and to look to the Lord of Life, the Lord of Resurrection.
This is a moment for grieving, for deep repentance. It is not okay. Do not try to make it okay.
That does not mean that we have to go around depressed, angry, etc. But it does mean that this is a moment for grief.
So let us use this moment to grieve, to repent, to ask God to forgive our sins, to renew our life of prayer at home, to love those whom God has given to us, and earnestly to beseech Christ to have mercy on us and to relieve our world from suffering.
That is how we will prepare ourselves for the Resurrection, not just for a date on the calendar—important as that moment in time truly is—but to greet the resurrected Christ, to be in Christ, and when that final Day comes, to be raised with Christ, and to know Paradise, where there is no sickness nor sorrow nor sighing but life everlasting.
For He is the resurrection and the life. He is the resurrection and the life.
To Christ Jesus Who comes in the Name of the Lord, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all power and glory and honor and worship, unto the ages of ages. Amen.