Articles, Essays & Sermons

Holy hell week

In the panic, be still; in the ordeal, take heart

by Ken Sehested

“Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you.
Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you
that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest.
That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together,
to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.”
—Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I once did dawn patrol in the high desert mesa country of northern New Mexico, with the only theologically trained cowgirl I know. It was during winter’s ragged end. Several inches of snow fell overnight. This being calving season, we had to check the pastures and spot signs of distress in the newborns. We did find one, lying still in the snow, steam still lifting from its small body, mama still licking clean the mucus. I carried it to the pickup hoping the heat would revive.

It didn’t. It lay there at my feet until we finished our rounds. Not since my two bedside vigils with my wife in labor have I ever felt so useless. None more than women know that birth is dangerous and threat is camped nearby. Hope is attested in such encampments.

In fact, when you descend into the deep mines of Holy Week’s labor—where its augurs bore away at human illusions and presumptions—one of its targets is the delusion that human value is calculated on usefulness and productivity. Having that fantasy stripped away is especially painful for those of us raised in a ethical universe shaped by capitalism. The makers find it impossible to believe we don’t get extra cookies; and that we don’t get to disparage the takers. What kind of moral mismanagement is this!?!

It’s enough to drive the monetizers mad.

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There is an uncanny, discomforting coincidence at work this week, Holy Week for Western Christians. This is also the week leading scientists say may be, here in the U.S., the worst week of the COVID-19 pandemic, with infections, hospitalizations, and deaths mounting exponentially.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Sunday that the US should brace for levels of tragedy never so widespread as the emotional impact to the nation from the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the president’s Coronavirus Task Force, said “things are gonna get bad” this week and the public needs to “buckle down.”

Both Heaven and hell are on full display during Holy Week, and we are not allowed to ignore the latter while siding with the former. Our duty is to sit with the onslaught of grief and prepare for the upsurge of hope. To refuse the first is to reduce hope to pleasantry; to refuse the second is complicity with despair.

Holy Week was hell week for Jesus’ small band of followers. They knew being in Jerusalem was dangerous, both for Jesus and for them—particularly during Passover season, when Jewish affront at Rome’s occupation was at its peak.

The disciples could not understand why Jesus had made this strategically disastrous move to confront the religious authorities on their own turf.  Hopes for a more muscular liberation and Jerusalem’s return to royal sovereignty were fading among Jesus' close associates.

Their worst fears were soon confirmed. It was as if the world were ending: Certainly their own dreams and visions, possibly their lives as well. Distress is no less contagious than a virus.

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As it happens, hope’s fertile soil lies in that spit of land between helpless despair and sentimental optimism. Our cultivating work, as the Welsh novelist and academic Raymond Williams wrote, “is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”

Hope is wider than optimism, believing everything will be fine; and deeper than pessimism, sensing all is doom. The latter, in fact, is a form of arrogant self-obsession, as if the world will unravel without our attention.

Both optimism and pessimism are haphazard, often fickle. When one or the other knocks at your door, give welcome; but say, you’ll get neither bed nor board in this house.

How are the faithful to hold up in the face of mounting tragedy? This is the focal question as we practice our special disciplines—as means of attentive listening—in this liminal season.

The counsel of scriptures and saints for the living of these days is this: In the panic, be still; in the ordeal, take heart; in the night of sorrow, remember the promise of joy’s release, for more is at work than we imagine.

Hope is not hope absent the context of threat. Otherwise, what you have is distracting amusement.

“For the world has grown full of peril,” Galadriel said to Celeborn in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. “And in all lands, love is now mingled with grief.”

Celeborn asks, “What now becomes of this Fellowship? Without Gandalf, hope is lost.”

"The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife,” said Galadriel. “Stray but a little, and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while the Company is true."

Trying days are here. Death’s pandemic is more palpable than usual; but it does not have the last word. Find your company and devote yourself to its sustenance.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org