In my address at Hittisleigh on Palm Sunday, I suggested that, as we approached Holy Week, we should, “be prepared to challenge our assumptions, and be ready to be surprised by the Easter story all over again.” I have to admit that sometimes I throw out these challenges, with little hope or expectation that anyone will either remember my words or act upon them – and less still that I act upon them myself!
However, Easter 2021 has, for me at least, been a season full of surprises, as I have experienced the journey from Palm Sunday through to Easter Day, almost as though it was for the first time. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the fact that last year, at this time, we were in the midst of a full lock-down, with the use of our church buildings physically barred, and no opportunity for collective worship, other than through the virtual channels of Zoom and You Tube.
Valuable as those early excursions into on-line prayer and worship were, they are no substitute for physically meeting together. As Revd Sue Sheppard pointed out during one of our on-line Lent course sessions, having arrived in Moretonhampstead during the pandemic, she only knows many of her parishioners from the shoulders up! We need that fuller experience of meeting and sharing together, and even with our current restrictions on numbers, distancing and face coverings, the opportunity to meet for prayer, contemplation and worship this Easter has been really special – and it is a reminder of just how far we have come since last April.
Don’t get me wrong – our virtual worship has been incredibly important during this time, and will continue to be so, as there are clearly many people who, for a variety of reasons, are unable or unwilling to actually join us in person. But it can never replace that physical coming together of the people of God.
I’m sure that many would agree that the biggest single thing missing from our worship during lock-down has been the opportunity to sing together. Listening to pre-recorded hymns, and humming along behind our masks, is better than nothing, but it doesn’t come close to the ‘real thing’. So, the relaxation in the restrictions which allowed us to sing together outside our churches on Easter morning was such a timely gift. Lustily sharing in the words of ‘Thine be the Glory’, outside both Spreyton and South Tawton was such an uplifting experience – the like of which I struggle to remember – enhanced by the blessing of a clear blue sky and warm(ish) April sunshine.
Meeting together for the various services during Holy Week and Easter has reminded me just how fundamental that physical ‘gathering’ is to the expression of our Christian faith. Whether it be during the solemn journey through the Stations of the Cross, or the quiet reflections of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, or the sheer joy of our worship on Easter morning; those experiences were all enhanced by being together, as the people of God.
As we move forward on the Road Map, and the restrictions on public gatherings are (hopefully) further relaxed, we should never forget these difficult times – and we should never take for granted the privilege of being able to meet together, whether that be for worship, or simply to share friendship and conversation over a cup of tea (and cake?).
And if the experience of lockdown helps us to realise that, for many in our communities, isolation and loneliness are not just confined to the days of the pandemic, but are the realities of everyday life, then perhaps all of this will not have been in vain. As we reflect on what we have been through over the past year, we might ask ourselves, how can we reach out to those around us who life seems to have passed by?
With every blessing,