This Holy Week is unlike any other. Of course, that is a sensationalist framing of the simplest of truths – every Holy Week – those mere 7 days that end with the great drama of the so-called “Triduum”, the 3 days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday- is different and this one is no exception.
I think of Holy Week last year – the first half spent scurrying between the M.C. Escher-like transport routes that “connect” strands of south Liverpool, distributing Holy Communion to ladies, both house bound and house proud, long bereft of husbands but not bereft of hope (nor, it must be said, of sharpened Scouse wit).
The Church teaches that Easter is not just a weekend but a whole season, indeed, a whole way of living. Moments pregnant with the chaos and glory of Easter joy may be magnified in our remembrance over Holy Week, but they are not limited to the period set aside by the whims of the calendar.
Yet to reach that Easter joy, the narrative power of Holy Week compels us to pass through gloom. In that greatest of narratives, death on Good Friday does lead to Resurrection on Easter Sunday but betwixt the two lies the Saturday. Holy Saturday, as a priest much better versed in the adolescent ejaculations that passed for philosophy in the nineteenth century than I once said, is the only day when Nietzsche is correct. Christ lies in the tomb and God is dead.
Perhaps the most important part of Holy Saturday is that it compels us to be alone. So much of that well known Easter narrative is rooted in walking with people; with the Christ and his disciples, of course, but also with one another as the drama of the story draws in the crowds. On the Saturday we have reached what was always presumed to be the final destination: death. And, as is necessary for the twist of Easter Sunday to work, we assume that we face it alone and that we face it forever. Put more dramatically – Holy Saturday is when Death stakes its claim not only on friends and family, on pensioners and prime ministers, on front line workers and on celebrities but on the Divine himself in the person of Christ.
Of course, the power of death and the isolation of loneliness are all too topical now. It remains a truism to observe that all Holy Weeks are different- but this one will be even more so, marked not by our coming together but our staying apart. The dramatic devices we employ to make real the events of so many years ago will be muted. And, of course, all too many will face the fear of Holy Saturday, the all too real fear of death, alone.
And yet the most important aspect of Holy Saturday is not, in fact, the loneliness which it encourages us to enter into at all; the most important aspect of Holy Saturday is that it ends. It ends and gives way to resurrection, to endless feasting, to Easter joy.
The message of Holy Week is that the narrative arc of our existence does not end in a long Good Friday, nor in an interminable Holy Saturday, but in the eternal Eastertide. That the period of isolation, that the apparent triumph of death, that the sense of separation from each other and from God only last for a while, and that on the other side is a better and brighter world; that is the real message of Holy Saturday and is the arc of all Holy Week. In the midst of this long Holy Saturday, acknowledging that it will end is a truth more potent, more radical now than ever.
This year Holy Week will be very different for, I should imagine, every single one of the billion plus Christians on earth; it will – I would suggest – even be different for those for whom it is nothing more than an extended Bank Holiday. It will feel much like an extended Holy Saturday, whether that is a timezone with currency for us or not. Yet, for those who wish to see it so, this Holy Week will also be very much the same as all the others. From the plush sofas in the widowed sitting rooms of south Liverpool and from flammable chairs of ex-monastic cells in east Oxford, on the rooftops of the Delhi slums and on the lonely sub-Carpathian mountainsides (all places I have spent Easters past), at the doors of closed churches and at the bedsides of thousands, chorused by the whir of ventilators and the hosannas of angels, the end of Holy Saturday, and with it the death of death and the coming of life, will still be proclaimed. For these diverse locations are not isolated at all, rather they are joined by the inexorable thread of the eternal, by hope, by love, by Easter joy.
The Reverend Fergus Butler–Gallie is Assistant Curate at Liverpool Parish Church and the author of A Field Guide to the English Clergy, a Best Book of the Year for The Times, Mail on Sunday and BBC History