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“This season of fatigue”
Matthew 21 vv 1-11
Two weeks into the “new normal”… How do you feel? You have done all the little jobs you’ve been meaning to do for years; your house is so clean you have hoovered the hoover; your secret supply of loo rolls is under lock and key. Perhaps, like me, you have taken to new and strange habits like rearranging your kitchen herbs into alphabetical order or even started watching Judge Rinder on daytime TV? Then you look at your calendar and it is still only Thursday – or is it Friday? The problem is that as Western Christians, we are good at being busy. We have a tendency to define ourselves by what we do and seek our purpose in busyness. When that routine is taken from us, we feel lost. The more time we have on our hands, the more tired we feel.
This year in Holy Week, let’s try something different, and take Holy Week as it is meant to be taken, one (slow?) day at a time, and resist that all too common Christian temptation to start thinking ahead to Easter Day. Easter will be very different this year, we know that. Some will have friends who have contracted Covid-19; you will know people close to you who are working at the front line in the NHS on our behalf; you will feel the frustration that I share of not being able to visit elderly relatives. There will be no family Easter egg hunt. Your grandchildren will not visit this week. Sylvia Plath’s words of weariness, helplessness and resignation speak for us. In her poem Black Rook in Rainy Weather, she wrote that we do not expect a miracle. There may be, she wrote, “a certain light leaping incandescent into our lives” – small flickers of God’s light into our fragile isolated lives. But most would concur with Sylvia Plath: we “now walk wary for it could happen even in this dull ruinous landscape; sceptical yet politic; ignorant of whatever angel may choose to flare suddenly at my elbow”. What do you hope for in Holy Week 2020? “A brief respite from fear…with luck, trekking stubborn through this season of fatigue, I shall patch together a content of sorts.” Sylvia Plath, like many of those to whom we minister and who in their suffering minister to us, clearly did not expect much.
For Holy Week 2020 is, above all, a season of fatigue. We will reach the Christian miracle of resurrection too late – too late to stop the daily tsunami of coronavirus statistics, each number a grieving family; too late to stop that hideous upward curve on the government graphs that have invaded our lives, too late to restore that sense of normality and a good world and a good god. I know people who are afraid, scared of going out and scared of staying in. That is what I mean by this season of fatigue and if Holy Week does not address them, we will have failed them. But speak we must. As Sylvia Plath wrote, those who suffer most expect the least any “backtalk from the mute sky”. God has not answered them; not directly at least. He must speak through the silence and he must speak through us.
And God will speak through the events of Holy Week. For the season of fatigue sums up how Jesus must have felt as he entered Jerusalem. And here’s a fact that we almost gloss over as we look at those Sunday Schoolesque palm wavers: to enter the centre of Jerusalem is to climb a steep hill. If Jesus was not weary from his ministry before today, he will be weary by the end of it. When I worked for the Diocese of Lincoln, our church offices were adjacent to the cathedral. Have you ever noticed that no matter where your church headquarters are – Cardiff, Edinburgh, Westminster, anywhere – there is never any car parking nearby? At least Cardiff is flat. Lincoln is built on a very steep hill. So, you must walk up the hill; by the time I arrived at my diocesan chaplaincy team meeting I felt and probably looked like Hillary on the summit of Everest. Gasping for breath, I did not need coffee; I needed oxygen. I can only imagine how exhausted Jesus and his donkey were when they finally reached their destination up an equally steep hill but in far hotter temperatures.
And yet fatigue is no bad thing. For what we must do today at the start of Holy Week is not wave palms and sing praises that might easily sound trite given our present circumstances. No, we must give up and surrender to God. There are, I believe, two overriding interpretations of the Passion as set out in the gospels. There are those who see Jesus as Christus Victor, with today’s triumphal entry and even the silence of Gethsemane merely the backcloth to Jesus’ golden crowning triumph; and those who see the week’s drama as evidence of a suffering God who had to learn by fatigue and the agony of prayer what it is like to truly surrender to the Father. Surely this year, more than any other year in my memory, there can be no place for triumphalism. As we minister to each other, from that new phrase “a safe social distance” through the wonders of technology, we must meet people where they are, as they are. We must learn to surrender, to give in to fatigue, to become black rooks in rainy weather, ruffling feathers of death and mortality – and not birds of paradise boasting God’s glory. A steep climb into Jerusalem, energy-sapping and lung-bursting, will do us no harm. The less strong we are, the less answers we have, the more that the Jesus of Holy Week and the God of a wooden cross will speak to us, and to those in hospital this week or alone at home, suffering and anxious.
Let me give an example of what it might be like to enter this season of fatigue. A group of missionaries in China went swimming in a local river to cool off. The waters were high, and they underestimated the strength of the current. One of the missionaries went under. His nearest companion was the strongest swimmer in the group but as the others called him to help his drowning colleague, he did nothing. Twice the unfortunate man went under the waves. Finally, his stronger colleague swam towards him and pulled him out. That evening, the leader of the mission called the rescuer to his office. “Why did you wait so long before you helped? You were the nearest to him; you could see he was drowning!” There was a pause. “Because”, said the man, “he had too much strength. He was still fighting and if I had gone to him then, he would have pulled us both under the water. I had to wait until he had no energy left. Then, and only then, could I rescue him.”
Today, Palm Sunday, Jesus is not the Jesus who raised Lazarus or calmed the storm. He is not the Jesus whose voice echoed down the hillside as he preached to thousands or who fed five thousand with consummate ease. No, this Jesus is footsore and weary. Very, very weary. The last thing he needs is the flies, the dust, more crowds and that steep, steep climb into Jerusalem. But that is what he gets, and with that climb despite the palm-waving and the fickle praise, every bone in his body hurts and every muscle cries out for rest. This Jesus is surrendering to the waves. And it is there that we too will find God. More importantly, those who are more tired and dislocated by this “new normal” than we are will find him: a weary God for a weary people. We are witnesses today of such a God, not birds of paradise in the bright colours of an Easter day singing hallelujahs with every easy smile, but black rooks, tired, anxious, no longer expecting a miracle, birds of death mourning and picking over the memories of those we have loved and lost.
Are you weighed down and footsore from your journey? This is your day. This is Jesus. Are you no longer strong enough, certain enough to cry Hosanna? This is your day. This is Jesus. Do you sometimes in the night cry “Would God it were morning!” and in the morning cry “Would God it were night!”? Are you, in the words of George Macleod, bereft of the familiar scenes where happiness once reigned? This is your unholy week. This is your suffering God.
This, then, is Palm Sunday in all its aching fatigue and this is the point at which God reaches down and begins the smallest miracle of all: a whisper of resurrection, the rescue almost too late of tired people succumbing to the waves. This, my friends, is where it all starts.