An Invitation to Holy Week

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

This past Ash Wednesday at All Saints’, Concord and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, (where I lead occasional services as their Interim Pastor), Rev. Nancy and I, respectively, invited people to the observance of a “holy Lent.” This invitation is a very special part of the Service of Ash Wednesday, since it describes the Lenten practice of the early Church (that is, our “spiritual mothers and fathers”) preparing converts for baptism at the Easter Vigil. It also mentions the Lenten regimen of restoring Church members who, due to “notorious sins,” were separated or excommunicated from the Church Body for a time. This restoration was completed only after a time of penance (while the penitents wore “sackcloth and ashes”), a public confession of sins followed by absolution from the bishop, and re-incorporation into the fellowship of the Church at the Maundy (Holy) Thursday Holy Eucharist. In the Service of Ash Wednesday, the “Invitation to a Holy Lent” precedes the imposition of blest ashes, the recitation or chanting of Psalm 51, and the Litany of Penitence (See the Book of Common Prayer, pages 264-269).

With our pandemic somewhat winding down, people are starting to venture out a bit more! Many of us who have previously avoided grocery shopping or dining at restaurants are now out and about, oftentimes without wearing our masks. Although a few businesses, medical offices, and hospitals, still require everyone visiting to wear a mask, it seems that most places we enter don’t require masks. Young children who are vaccinated against Covid-19 may now be able to attend group events with their parents’ permission.

What does the winding down of the pandemic and our resulting sense of more freedom have to do with the Ash Wednesday “invitation to a holy Lent?” I’m glad you asked!

As I would say to some of my younger friends, “Here’s the scoop”: 

  • This Season of Lent is the THIRD Lenten Season we’ve faced through the pandemic! 
  • Our sense of isolation has only gotten worse through these past two-plus years.
  • Many people feel that the time since the pandemic started began one LONG season of Lent, rather than two complete Church Year cycles, including Advent, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost!
  • Some have prematurely declared victory over Covid 19, while others – especially those who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated – feel unsure about stepping out in public with a chance of contracting the virus.  Most of us, I feel are “somewhere in the middle.”
  • Partly as a result of the pandemic, quite a few of us might be skeptical about returning to church for services.

I want to let you know that, based on the recommendations of the CDC as well as the experience of fellow leaders in the Episcopal Church and other denominations, our bishops have “lowered the bar” regarding restrictions for participating at Holy Eucharist. For instance, we no longer need to sign in when we enter the church (for contact tracing). Our clergy and lay ministers are still taking proper precautions in giving Holy Communion. Plus, our church’s ventilation systems include “scrubbers” that clean the air of practically all viruses. EVERYONE is welcome to come back to worship our awesome and wonderful God in the community of All Saints’, whether you’re masked or not, or whether or not you’d like to keep a further “social distance” from others while in church.

Jesus calls us to be his followers, individually but also as part of a community of faith, hope, and love. Because he does not want us to feel isolated or lonely, he gave us the Church as His Body on earth, for our mutual love and support.

This Lent may not have been the time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that we had experienced years before. But even if we haven’t had a particularly “holy” Lent, there’s still time for us to have a “holy” Holy Week. Now that we can more freely be present and active in our church services, we can make this Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through Easter, a Spirit-filled “mini-Lent.” We will have services every day during Holy Week. And even though those who aren’t able to attend physically are encouraged to participate in these services online, we, as well as our bishops – and GOD – strongly encourage you and me to worship our great God in person, as we are able.

So please let me slightly amend the Ash Wednesday “Invitation to a Holy Lent” for us as we begin the holiest week of the Church Year. My emendations are in bold print.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy “Holy Week,”

  • by self-examination and repentance; 
  • by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; 
  • by participating in All Saints’ services during Holy Week – especially those during the “Great Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve/Day
  • by participating in the above services in person, if at all possible,
  • by reverently receiving Christ in Holy Communion in church, but if prevented by illness or condition, by calling the church office for a Communion visit by our clergy, and 
  • by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

God IS “Holy.” But since we are God’s children, we also are holy. Recognizing the pandemic and our resulting isolation, as well as internal political divisions, economic instability, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, God wants us to depend on the Holy Spirit and His Son’s Body, the Church, as our guides to show one another and the world how we ought to live: as Jesus’ disciples “making disciples.” Our crucified and Risen Savior depends on you and me to be his “holy ones,” helping to share with others that they too are holy, made in God’s image and likeness. This is why we should take Lent and Holy Week as opportunities to recognize our weakness and grow in God’s love and grace.

My prayer of us is that no matter how we spent the last three Lenten seasons, you and I have a “holy” Holy Week! 

With God’s blessing and my prayers, 

Jim Bernacki+