When the Earth Shakes

Photo by Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

The parades have been canceled. Maybe some postponed. The palms have been placed in a corner or a closet—what to do with them now? And Holy Week?

Similar to a saying about Lent that has surfaced on social media—“This is the Lentiest Lent I have ever Lented”—this may be the Holiest Holy Week we have ever Holied.

Dear Working Preachers, it is hard to imagine a Palm/Passion Sunday and a Holy Week that compare to this year. The plans you made months ago are now undergoing changes of drastic proportions. Those traditions on which you have counted to make this week work, at least from traditional and liturgical assessments, are close to impossible to carry out. You are inventing, innovating, learning, and adapting at a rate unequaled in the history of your ministry. You have all become televangelists overnight and mastered (sort of) Facebook Live and Zoom out of necessity.

Take a breath. Let it out. You don’t have to do all the things. Especially this week. Because in all of this ministry management in the time of a pandemic, here is what I think we could forget—in spite of our rubrics and rituals, Holy Week will happen. Because here is another thing we forget on a frequent basis: We are not God.

And God has a way of reminding us, perhaps more often than we would like, that God is God and we are not. To be clear, I am not suggesting that COVID-19 is God’s way of getting us to remember this simple fact. Contrary to some popular belief, God did not cause this pandemic to teach us a lesson. But a crisis of this nature drastically and forever is certain to clarify two things.

First, it prompts some rather serious self-reflection. Our very human instinct is to take over when we think God cannot adequately meet our expectations or when we assume that the protocols we have put in place are the only ways through which God can work. And how we navigate such issues can sometimes bring out the worst in us. Communion or no communion? How do we define community? What is the definition of church? Does virtual “anything” count for anything? This is not the time to take sides, but a moment for mercy and grace. Take a breath. Let it out. God’s church has survived much, this we know.

Second, a crisis of this nature shifts our perspective. It makes us see what we have overlooked, taken for granted, assumed; what we have executed rotely, as business-as-usual. Not that we needed a wake-up call. But, “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to” (Dave Hollis).

Yes, we acknowledge that many in our midst do not have such a luxury. But the church as it is now, and has been for quite some time, benefits from a place of privilege. As a result, this shift in perspective brings us back to how the church got started in the first place and what is at the core of its identity—with Jesus, Immanuel, life as we knew it would never be the same again. That’s what death and resurrection does.

And so, the verse I am clinging to on this Palm/Passion Sunday, with Holy Week in view, is this: “The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51).

For all intents and purposes, an earthquake is not good news. I grew up in the Bay Area of California. I experienced my share of earthquakes, including the quake of 1989. There were regular earthquake drills in school. Nothing was hung over your bed, lest it could fall on your head. My mother made sure that rubber bands secured handles on the cabinets in which her cherished china was kept. But with all of that in mind, Matthew may very well be the good news we need here and now.

Because before it became salvation, before it became forgiveness of sins, before it became a sign of God’s sacrificial love and a symbol of a church, the cross was a crisis of unfathomable proportions. And the death of Jesus, in no uncertain terms, was an earthquake. “The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”

When the earth shook and the rocks split all that we assumed, all that we knew, all in which we had become complacent, basking in overfamiliarity, was twisted upside down. Overturned. Never to be the same again.

At Golgotha, the ground literally shifted under our feet. Theological constructions capsized. And the meaning of community, kingdom, and citizenship unmoored.

What does this mean? It means that biblically and theologically we are more than equipped for now. It is in our DNA and always has been. It means that Christologically, when we feel unanchored, that just might be where God needs us to be. And it means that ecclesiologically, when it seems that structures and systems are on the verge of being toppled, that’s when the church can truly and unquestionably be the light of the world.