Cheryl Bridges Johns | Mar 29, 2020

Near the Cross: Holy Week in the Age of Coronavirus

  In seven days we will begin Holy Week in the difficult time of a global pandemic. Months ago, who would have dreamed that Christianity’s most sacred season would find us hunkered down in our homes instead of gathering with other Christians? Who would have imagined we would not be together for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil? Who would have dreamed there would be no church-sponsored egg hunts? Who could imagine Easter Sunday with empty churches instead of pews packed with people?


In these strange and frightening days, I’ve been impressed with the sheer breadth of imagination and creativity I’ve seen. Pastors with little experience with online platforms are bravely stepping out of their comfort zone and preaching, praying, and observing communion with their scattered congregations. Last evening Pope Francis delivered a powerful homily while facing an empty St. Peter’s Square. In this time of sickness and death, God’s Creator Spirit is generative, breathing over our troubled waters and stirring up newness. The Spirit is giving us hope and keeping us bound together in ways none of us thought possible. In a strange way, pandemic time has become redemptive time.


Yet, we all know the back-story is one of suffering and death. It is a time in which physicians have to make unthinkable choices as to who lives or dies. Each day the death toll climbs, and each day we hear about someone we know who is suffering or who has lost a loved one. Perhaps, this time of grief and separation is most fitting for Holy Week. Perhaps we’ve made it too noisy, too much about the human ability to have the biggest egg hunt, the largest crowd, or the most amazing Easter cantata.  In my tradition at least, there is the tendency to pay lip service to the story of the Passion of Holy Week. In our rush to the egg hunts and Easter celebrations, we have a tendency to run past the grief and betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the abandonment and terror of Good Friday, and the deep silence of Holy Saturday.


Over the last few years, I have observed an increasing triumphal tone to Charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity. We sing songs touting our authority as Christians. We give prophecies about “seasons of re-alignment and prosperity.” We drink from the intoxicating well of dominion theology, seeing ourselves marching toward Washington, D.C. taking this country back for Jesus. (It’s all about Jesus) We are no longer a pilgrim people described in the book of Hebrews.

No, we’ve become quite ambitious with dreams of being near the seat of worldly power.


Holy week in an age of pandemic is a good time to re-examine our hunger for power and our illusions of grandeur. I believe Jesus is stopping us in our tracks as we march on the road toward fame and glory. On this road, he is turning to us, asking the same question he asked his disciples who had earthly visions of power and glory, “Are you willing to drink from the cup that I drink from?”   The nature of the Kingdom of God has not changed from that fateful day when Jesus was walking toward Jerusalem with his disciples. They had to learn the hard lesson that the way to glory was the way of the cross. In fact, the cross is where the glory of God is most profoundly seen. Holy Week in the age of pandemic is a good time for Jesus to teach us that lesson all over again.


I spent some time this afternoon sitting at the piano and playing the hymn, “Near the Cross.” This hymn was a favorite in the church of my childhood. This was before the time when singing, testifying, and clinging to the cross became un-cool. It didn’t enter our minds that singing about the cross would create a “down mood,” making it hard to have celebratory worship. This was before the time when Christians would sing boastfully about taking it all back. Sure, we sang “Victory in Jesus,” But even that song included the caveat that our victory was because “He gave his life on Calvary to save a wretch like me.”


I’m not certain that all of our special effects of  lights, and the fog, all of our proclaiming and the stomping on the Devil will take us through the valley of the shadow of death created by the coronavirus. The only way through this valley is the way of the cross. It’s a double negation: death overcoming death. The cross of Jesus is the only power that can sustain us through the long nights ahead. The cross is the only power that can turn our mourning into joy. These days I don’t have much to say about things, except that I hunger to be near the cross.


Holy Week will be a good time for us to draw near the cross:

Near the Cross

Jesus, keep me near the cross- there’s a precious fountain,

Free to all a healing stream, Flows from Calvary’s mountain.


In the cross, in the cross, Be my glory ever.

Till my raptured soul shall find

Rest, beyond the river


Near the cross, a trembling soul, Love and mercy found me,

There the Bright and morning star sheds its beams around me.


In the cross, in the cross, Be my glory ever

Till my raptured soul shall find

Rest beyond the river


Near the cross, O Lamb of God, Bring its scenes before me;

Help my walk from day to day With its shadows o’er me


In the cross, in the cross, Be my glory ever.

Till my raptured soul shall find

Rest beyond the river.


Near the cross, I’ll watch and wait, Hoping, trusting ever.

Till I reach the golden strand Just beyond the river.


In the cross, in the cross

Be my glory ever,

Till my raptured soul shall find

Rest beyond the river.


If you have never heard this wonderful hymn here is a link a powerful rendition:


Whenever we sang this hymn in my home church, I would keep my eye on Rev. Willis Bayne, a retired minister. By the time we got to the words, “In the cross, in the cross, Be my glory ever,” the Spirit would quicken him. Rev. Bayne’s shoulders would begin to jump and he would cry out “Glory!” At times he would leave his seat and walk the aisle crying and waving his hand in the air shouting “Glory, Glory, Glory!” What so moved this elderly man? It was the glory in the cross.


Once we discover the glory in the cross, we don’t need to carefully separate suffering and joy. In the deep mystery of the Passion of the Lamb, these things are joined in an eternal paradox. In the suffering beauty of the cross, the fragrance of life bursts forth from the confines of the stench of death. Here is Jesus, the crucified One who conquers death, hell, and the grave. (Yes, I’m speaking in tongues as I type these words.)


In the ensuing weeks, we will all walk the road we do not want to walk. We will face sickness and death. These days, I urge us to draw near the cross. Let us watch and wait, hoping, trusting ever. For we know Jesus is there- with a healing stream.

Closing with the anointed words from Pope Francis’ homily, Urbi et Orbi: “We have an anchor: by his cross, we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross, we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross, we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.