Holy Week fast approaches (28 March is Palm Sunday). It is our tradition in these days to follow the drama of Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, step by step. We mark the exaltation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; the sombre tones of the Last Supper, with its command of humble service; the agony of his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane; the desolation of Calvary; the earth tremors of his death; the dawning realisation of the new life bursting from the barren tomb; the climax of the ‘alleluias’ of Easter Day. It is a journey like no other. The whole of our human nature and experiences are to be found there, embraced by our Blessed Lord in his sharing in our nature yet suffused with his divine compassion, love, and power, undefeated even by death itself.
Last year our celebrations of Holy Week were like never before, symbolised by the figure of Pope Francis, alone in a rain-swept St Peter’s Square, yet accompanied by untold millions through television and the internet.
This year will have similar restrictions for many. Yet another feature now colours our Holy Week: the deaths associated with this pandemic: over a hundred thousand in this country and two and a half million worldwide. The cry of lamentation is piercing and widespread, giving extra bitterness and poignancy through the impossibility of shared grieving among friends and communities. This has cut to the heart of our humanity, as have so many other aspects of the lockdowns, shielding, and travel bans, eroding our patterns of family and mutual support.
It takes little imagination to hear the cry of the women of Jerusalem at the sight of Jesus as a reflection of our own laments. Jesus’ words to them remind us that he is no dreamer, no false idealist, for he knows, from within, the continuing reality of human suffering in this broken world of ours. Indeed, as we stand at the foot of the Cross, either in the Liturgy of the Church or in the silence of our room, we know that he has absorbed into his flesh, like a sponge taking in water, all the destructiveness of our sinfulness and the impact of the ruthlessness of the created order.
It also takes little imagination to see that throughout this pandemic the ‘green blades’ have continued to rise, the precursors or first shoots of the work of the Holy Spirit in a pandemic-swept world: countless acts of random kindness, the growth of true solidarity, and determined service of the most needy, a deep appreciation of the importance of family ties. The list is long. This is the growth which need must nurture in the radiance of the radical power of the Holy Spirit, raising Jesus from the tomb.
St Paul tells us to glory in the Cross of Jesus. Yes, we have to not only glimpse but also grasp the glory of the Cross of Christ which alone can call us through every crisis and corruption. This glory is not a shield from harsh realities; it is not an escape route. Rather it is the unconditional embrace of those realities by the only person who has power, in his divine nature, to overcome them and, by his embracing of our humanity, to share that victory with us, his sisters and brothers.
In our pilgrimage together we know that now we are gifted with the first fruits of his victory even as we await their fulfilment only when summoned by the Lord into the full glory of his presence.
As we light candles for all who have died, we do so not only as a promise to remember them but more importantly as a sign of the hope of eternal life, which fills our hearts with joy.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols the Archbishop of Westminster, President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and currently one of the Presidents of Churches Together in England.