Commentary: Marking Holy Week and Easter in the time of the coronavirus

Hand sanitizer is installed the Good Friday service at a church in Bangkok on April 10, 2020.
Holy water is prohibited while hand sanitizer is installed as part of an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at the Holy Redeemer Church during the Good Friday service in Bangkok on April 10, 2020.
(Romeo Gacad / AFP via Getty Images)

It is an interesting year for people in the Christian community to celebrate Easter. On the one hand, crowded sanctuaries, full-throated singing, and after-parties with children finding and sharing treats seem to be prescriptions for super-spreader events. On the other hand, the encouraging numbers that have moved Orange County into the orange tier this week seem precisely like a kind of rising to new life. Scientists, health workers and community servants have the difficult responsibility to lead us in the right balance between caution and courage. I want to use this moment to let our shared experience help us interpret the Easter event as we allow the Easter event help us interpret our shared experience.

Easter loses its meaning if it is separated from the dire events of what Christians call “Holy Week.” It is during Holy Week that we hear the story of betrayal, abandonment, mob violence, brutality, justice denied, political pandering and even that harrowing question of theological despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The crucifixion itself is gruesome and obscene, the worst kind of political theater and scapegoating that one can imagine — just what an empire wants to keep protests and liberation movements in check.

When we name it this way, Holy Week offers incisive critiques of the machinations that continue to disturb peace and violate community. The pandemic has also made so many of those disjointed systems among us more evident: Underpaid workers turn out to be essential; healthcare is a public issue, not a concierge privilege; and the horrible rise in anti-AAPI violence only sharpens the racism that has bedeviled communities of color and Native Americans throughout U.S. history. An even sharper image comes to mind when we consider that the immediate cause of death for Jesus — even though he had intoxicants in his system — was asphyxiation. He couldn’t breathe.

If Holy Week discloses the power of death that functions at the core of our community, Easter offers the hope that life ultimately overcomes death. The question is whether we, as a community, have the power and courage to imagine a culture of life, after being so long wedded to a culture of death. Can we imagine a community where healthy foods are as accessible in food deserts as they are in exclusive markets? Can we imagine a community where a mixture of affordable housing and living wages ensure shelter for everyone? Can we imagine a community where mental illnesses and addictions are met with care and compassion, where refugees find sanctuary, where people of color have full access? A culture of life can only rise when what we actually put to death is the violent culture of stigmas and scapegoating.

Throughout this pandemic we have seen nasty episodes of selfish behavior that endanger public health. We have also seen many people push past their own concerns to mask up, wash often and look out for their neighbors in need. So, in this season, as we observe Passover with family, attend or zoom Easter services with a church or simply welcome the new life that spring offers, may we live in the message that good overcomes evil, life overcomes death and hope overcomes despair.

Mark Davis is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.

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