The Isolation of Jesus in Holy Week

10 April 2020

By The Revd Canon James Mustard

When I was a singer, I spent quite a bit of time performing in Spain. I was struck that, in Holy Week, the daily television news would give a roundup of Holy Week commemorations happening around the nation that day. They were extraordinary affairs, elaborate pageants with spectacular costumes and community engagement on a huge scale, clearly the fruit of year-round preparation and involvement – far beyond “the Church”. I’ve thought about those communities a lot this week, because, in as much as we as a church community are deprived of our commemorations and celebrations, for much of the Catholic world, the strictures required to suppress the Coronavirus’ spread will have deprived them of the social “glue” of their major civic festivals and processions. Those Spanish customs remind us that Holy Week is most profoundly about community, and the community formed by the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, God made human for all of us.

The Passion Narratives read as dramatic scripts, and they work very well in civic processions! Did they emerge out of early pilgrimages round Jerusalem? Were they retelling Jesus’ last days and hours for faithful visitors to that city? Possibly. Part of their strength lies in the many voices we hear. We find ourselves identifying with all manner of characters, Peter, Pilate, the Crowd: these are all people are just like us. We are closer to all of them than we dare to admit. That is what makes this annual telling so powerful, and why it forms such strong community. This year, however, we can’t be part of a crowd. We are all stuck in our homes. So what does that leave for us to gain from this Holy Week?

I am a fan of JS Bach’s settings of the St Matthew and St John Passions. The notable thing about Jesus in St John’s Passion is that he is always present, but he says remarkably little. There’s a serenity and poise to Jesus: he lets the drama unfold around him. There is no turmoil in him and he stands, not aloof, but alone and apart.

This year, we are all apart. This gives us, I think, the remarkable opportunity to identify with Jesus. For the story of Jesus in Holy Week is one of increased isolation. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a beast, aloof but already alone. The crowd that shouts “Hosanna” shouts “Crucify” within five days. The twelve intimates who gather with their friend and teacher at the Last Supper scatter, leaving only one at the Cross, and Jesus, elevated, ironically, between the criminals either side of him.

However, this year it may be that we can take our strange isolations and “social distancing” as a way to understand better Jesus’ pilgrimage through Holy Week and what it might mean for each of us. Once we are deprived of many voices around us, with what are we left? Ourselves and, if we are lucky, those closest to us. This year, we have the opportunity to work out what our vocation is, alone, what is the will of God our Father for each of us. No hiding behind the crowd. It’s each of us face-to-face with Jesus.

That may sound stark, but it is, in fact, the most remarkable opportunity for each of us to discover who we are called to be, where our Passions lie, what our vocation might be. In fact, this period of Holy Week Isolation, while it will not be easy for any of us, might turn out to be less of a trial or a Golgotha, than an unexpected Easter Garden, full of promise and Resurrection. It’s in that spirit of strange and unexpected Easter Hope that I wish you all, wherever you may be, a blessed and fruitful Holy Week and Easter.

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