In his sermon for the sixth Sunday of Lent in Parochial and Plain Sermons, preached on April 9, 1841, John Henry Newman describes the cross of Christ as the measure of the world, the key for the true interpretation of life:
His cross has put its due value upon everything which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. (1240)
Throughout his sermon Newman contrasts this true, yet hidden, measure of life with how the world appears on the surface – as if “made for the enjoyment of just such a being as man” and ourselves as designed for that enjoyment as well. He describes how difficult it is look below the surface to this sorrowful doctrine– to not be distracted by the glitter of the world, but to learn how to “grieve for our sins in the midst of all that smiles and glitters around us.” (1241)
For the first time for many of us in contemporary America, the veil of enjoyment has been tugged back to allow more than mere glimpses but a sustained contemplation of the sorrow and brokenness which lies at the heart of the world. Sequestered alone in our houses or working on the front lines in some form of essential service, watching the number of those infected and dying climb inexorably on our TV screens or through posts on Facebook, this Holy Week many of us are seeing through the world’s superficial shimmer in a sustained fashion for the first time.
In a country deep in the grip of a pandemic, even those of us not infected are confronting the power and ubiquity of death. The sky-rocketing unemployment numbers and endless analysis of co-morbidities, and the correlation with poverty and racial discrimination, all emphasize the inequities in our present system. Alone in our houses, we are also coming face to face with our own sins: our frustration, our fear, our anger, our lack of love for those nearest to us and those far away, and the ease with which we seek succor in anything else except God’s grace and mercy. The shadow of the cross on Good Friday falls backwards across this Holy Week illumining our life in stark relief: condemning death, injustice, and our foundational failures.
In the isolation, cut off from the normal liturgies and rituals of Holy Week, we are still all on our own Holy Week journey. As we walk the path shadowed by the cross, we can now look back and see the emptiness of the Palm Sunday celebration. Along with the crowds in Jerusalem, we see more clearly our own failure to understand what it means to welcome Jesus as the true King of our life; how instead we have recognized kings of comfort, health, success, and autonomy. Even as we draw closer to the Good Friday cross, the toll of death and destruction rises. The joy and hope of Easter seem to be drawing no closer.
However, Newman reminds us that life in the shadow of the cross is not a condemnation and rejection of all joy. Rather, it only forbids us to “begin with enjoyment.” The same God who hung upon that cross has also told us that “those who mourn will be comforted” and that he gives us peace which is “not as the world gives.” This comfort and this peace does not mean health, economic security, or even freedom to return to our old patterns or ways of life. Rather, it is the peace and comfort found in the presence of the God who has walked this whole road before us. Looking around, we see that he is walking in the shadow of the cross with us as well.
We see him in the faces of those sacrificing themselves day in and day out on the front lines of medical care. We see him in new ways in the faces of our loved ones – whether with us or apart, who are showing their own quiet heroism of abnegation and withdrawal to keep others safe. We hear his voice more clearly as we wake in the night, filled with anxiety and worried and no longer with our normal distractions to console us. And we see him anew in the Eucharist, as we prepare to celebrate the gift of his real presence in the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday. Even as we cannot share in this form of sacramental presence, as we watch through our screens, we are drawn more closely together in his body by sharing in spiritual communion with Christians around the world – no longer divided by denominational differences but all one in waiting, watching and desiring.
As Newman reminds us: “they alone can truly feast, who have first fasted; they alone are able to use the world, who have learned not to abuse it; they alone inherit it, who take it as a shadow of the world to come, and who for that world to come relinquish it.”
Dr. Elisabeth Kincaid is assistant professor of Ethics and Moral Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.