Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.
(Composed in 1932 by Thomas Dorsey as he grieved the death of his wife and newborn son)
The people on the video-conference all nodded when one participant said what so many are saying in so many places. Things are never going to be the same. The other bookend is this: Nobody knows how things are going to be.
We are in the perfect place in the calendar of the church to speak about and into the loss of the familiar and the uncertainty of the outcome. You could easily call Holy Week by another name: “Things-Are-Never-Going-To-Be-The-Same Week”. The week begins with Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and ends with his execution, with his friends and followers cowering behind locked doors.
Twenty years ago a colleague, Paul Maclean, introduced me to anthropologist Victor Turner’s work on liminality. Turner studied ritual transitions such as rites of passage, and found a common pattern in which a person was divested of their status, entered a state of neither “before” nor “after”, and then entered a new state of life in the world. The Latin root of “liminality” is limen, the Latin word for “threshold”. It evokes a sense of lingering in a doorway between a vanished before and an unknown after. A meantime of uncertainty. Things are never going to be the same. Nobody knows how things are going to be. Limen. Threshold.
The world, and the church God calls to love and serve in the world, are both lingering fretfully on such a threshold. And we linger there as the church—the Body of Christ—plunges into Holy Week, the vortex of liminality in the cycle of memory and hope we call the Christian calendar.
Today, Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna.” The same day, according to Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan (The Last Week, 2005), the Roman garrison is reinforced by soldiers arriving from Caesarea-by-the-Sea to patrol the city as its citizens celebrate their deliverance from a previous oppression. Jesus enters the city through one gate, to lay claim to Jerusalem as the child and servant of Yahweh, the Lord of Israel, even as Pilate enters through another gate and makes an opposing claim in the divine name of Caesar. This day is the beginning of someone’s end.
The story of this coming week, the last in Jesus’s life, is electric, especially in the staccato rhythm with which Mark writes it. The overturning of the tables and the borrowing of Jeremiah’s accusation: “den of robbers”. The confrontation with the Sadducees, the predicted destruction of the temple—time and again the authorities want to arrest him but don’t, fearing the reaction of the crowds who surround him.
In the end, the authorities pay Judas to lead them to Jesus on Thursday night, when the crowds are not with him. They arrest him, hold him overnight, present him on Friday to Pilate, and provide their crowd to rabble for his crucifixion. Pilate wears down in the face of their threats to denounce him for disloyalty to Caesar.
What follows is the stripping away of Jesus’s clothes, and then of his life. He becomes nothing, and for a day he is neither what he was nor what he is to become. This violent end of what has been, of the hope held by people like Cleopas and spoken of with heartbreak to a stranger on the road—“that he would be the one to redeem Israel”—brings the curtain down forever on the way things have been. It leaves his friends and followers shuddering on the threshold of a new reality, the reality that the power of death has rained down on them, has taken their friend and is stalking them. They head for the hills (Cleopas and his companion), they hide behind locked doors. Peter, thinking he can put all this behind him with a little status quo ante, goes fishing. He tries to undo the lone certainty about this threshold—that the door we’ve just been pushed through locks behind us.
Indigenous communities, inmates in prisons and jails, elders in seniors’ residences and nursing homes, and people with “underlying conditions” are particularly vulnerable, but COVID-19’s shadow chills us all.
We call the death of Jesus “sacrificial”. The word means “holy-making”. I wonder if what Jesus “makes holy” is this threshold at which we now find ourselves, this viral meantime in which the whole world suddenly finds itself. We know such thresholds well already in our bodies, our families, our communities. The end of a relationship, the time before the birth of a child, the shame that separates us from others when we have done wrong, the death of a dear one—do we dare to imagine that Jesus has made holy all these meantimes, all of these mean times? Is that why he is able to say, “It is finished” as he breathes his last breath? Finished, completed, his errand fulfilled, his promise kept. Jesus knew well that when he set his face toward Jerusalem there would be a lethal cost. His passion for the reign of the God of love would put him in the path of the Caesar of death, and that Caesar would what Caesars do, assisted by the toxic repurposing of the temple for earthly power. Today as we remember how the crowds greeted him, we enter a week of confrontation that we know will begin its last day, Saturday, with Jesus in a tomb.
This is the victory of love at the limen by which Jesus accompanies across all the looming thresholds of our vulnerability and our foolishness, our losses, our shame, our anxious wondering. In his body he enters the meantime that seems like nowhere, nobody, nothing. This is what we are meant to know in our baptism, that as we plunge into the drowning water, we enter the meantime of nowhere, nothing, nobody, a threshold made holy by his own body’s suffering and dying, fills that empty place—that loss, that shame, that fear—with the power of the God who is love.
Our meantime in the church is a time of enormous loss, a loss shared with the world. People in the thousands are dying with no loved one near. Indigenous communities, inmates in prisons and jails, elders in seniors’ residences and nursing homes, and people with “underlying conditions” are particularly vulnerable, but COVID-19’s shadow chills us all. We are not liking this threshold, this loss, this fear, this confinement. Some of us just want to go fishing, with Peter. Others lock ourselves in.
And two women, early Sunday morning, will just do what has to be done in the dreadful meantime: they will go to the tomb with spices and oils to tend his body, to honour what it was and move—however reluctantly—into what is coming. They are the first to know that it is the threshold itself that has been transformed, that the meantime is made holy.