Holy Week Homilies

HOLY WEEK HOMILIES for Worshiping in Place

The Rev. Miranda Hassett, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Madison, WI 

Maundy Thursday – Homily for the Anointing of Hands

So, let’s talk about footwashing. That’s usually the “special thing” we do tonight. Footwashing was a significant gesture of service in the ancient Near East, because people’s feet needed care. My daughter and I recently read an article about Roman sewers that contained this line:  “The streets of a Roman city would have been cluttered with dung, vomit, [human waste], garbage, filthy water, rotting vegetables, animal skins and guts, and other refuse from various shops that lined the sidewalks. 

Feet were dirty. And because people mostly wore sandals, feet also took a beating – dry & cracked, often small cuts or injuries. Tending someone’s feet was a real act of humility – usually for those of lowly stature, considering what you’d be washing off. That’s why Peter resists it – he doesn’t want Jesus, his honored friend and teacher, to do this for him. But Jesus says, I need to do this. Because foot washing was a true act of service. Imagine how good it would feel to have your dirty, beaten-up feet gently washed & dried & perhaps anointed with some balm or oil. 

I think foot washing as a church custom is really holy and precious. Even though the context has changed a lot – our streets are pretty clean, and we mostly wear shoes – it’s still powerful and intimate and humbling. But it’s also pretty hard to do as part of a Zoom liturgy. It takes time; it takes setup; it excludes those who are joining us on their own. I encourage you, if you’d like, to wash your feet or one another’s feet after the end of our service tonight, perhaps as kind of a bedtime ritual. It’s a tender, holy gesture.

But what we will do now, as we are gathered, is something different – but I think it’s a fair analogue, for this year, this moment in the life of the world. I’m going to invite you to anoint your hands. Or if you’re here with others, to anoint one another’s hands. Don’t start yet! I’m still talking! 

Anointing hands is different from washing feet. Feet were dirty, and had shameful cultural connotations. Hands are not seen as shameful in our culture, and our hands are all probably REALLY clean. But they may also be dry. Sore. Chapped or cracked. Our hands are bearing the burden of our carefulness. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, almost the last thing that happens before the Last Supper, is that a woman anoints Jesus with scented oil. It’s a gesture of honor – something you do for somebody special – and also a gesture of care. 

So let’s carry all that into this gesture of anointing our hands. Make it a mediation, a sacred pause. Whether you’re tending your own hands or someone else’s… take your time. Be gentle. Be thorough. Thank these hands for their work. Thank them for what they are sacrificing every day, by being washed and washed again until they are dry and scratchy and maybe painful. Thank them for helping keep you safe; helping keep your loved ones safe; helping keep everyone safe. 

There’s a simple prayer you can say – to yourself or to whomever’s hands you are anointing: [Name], I anoint your hands in the name of the One who made you, loves you, and sustains you. 


Maundy Thursday – Homily for the Stripping of the Altar 

Let’s remember what we usually do at this time… and describe it for people who haven’t seen it at St. Dunstan’s before.… 

One of the things we do is empty the tabernacle and take the consecrated bread and wine to the Altar of Repose. It’s a place we set aside holy things that we aren’t going to use for a while. Usually a pretty short while – Thursday evening to Saturday evening!

I was talking about Maundy Thursday with a friend, Michael, and she said: Maundy Thursday, and specifically the stripping of the altar, is going to be hard this year because so many people are living through that experience of having things stripped away from them. When we are putting away beautiful, special things that give us delight, Michael said, people will look at that this year and think, That’s not just a symbol. That’s my life. 

Dear ones: What we are doing now is hard, and costly, and important. This thing we are doing together, that’s making us worship through computer screens – It may help keep us safer – my household, your household. That’s certainly one big goal. But It is definitely helping keep our whole community safer. 

It’s hard for us to to see it, but the people who are modeling this epidemic tell us there’s a really direct line between our setting aside all these things for a season, our self-isolation – what a weighty phrase – and saving lives. Lives of people we may know but also lives of people we don’t, because we are all in a web of connection, in ways we maybe didn’t think about a lot before coronavirus. You’ll never know the names of the people who are alive in June because of what you are setting aside right now. But they have names, and lives, and people who love them. 

Staying home, minimizing our contact with others and the outside world, is one of the most Christlike things we may be called upon to do. 

So in few minutes I will strip our symbolic altar. But first, I’d like to take some time for you to create your own Altar of Repose for the things you have set aside for this season. There’s a fancy word for this – renunciation. Things set aside or stop doing for a reason. We have been asked and told to stay home – but we still have a choice about whether & how fully we comply. We do have agency, and we’re using it. 

Take your pens & slips of paper & write or draw some of the things you’re NOT doing right now… your renunciations. Some of the things we miss & are longing to return to. Please include the things that feel trivial, like stopping by a favorite coffeeshop or petting your neighbor’s dog when you meet on a walk! You can just write a word or two;  you’ll know what you mean. Then gather all those slips into your envelope or special container, and set them aside in some special place. We are setting aside beautiful things, lovely things, things that delight and fulfill us. But we will bring them forth again, when the time is right. We will. 


Good Friday Homily

This liturgy is hard because it leans into suffering, loss, struggle, and death. This year we are all in that together in a (I hope) unique way. It’s humbling for me as a pastor because I know that Good Friday always hits some people hard. Maybe every year; maybe only in some particular year – it’s all just too close to the bone, this story of betrayal, abuse, indifference, despair, and a lonely, brutal death. 

This year it’s close to the bone for all of us, collectively. And that is strange and raw and hard and holy. This is a day to acknowledge grief at suffering and loss. It’s also a day when the Church says two bold, insistent things: You’re never alone; and death is not the end of the story. You’re never alone because in Jesus Christ, God entered into human experience, even into its darkest depths. God can always find us there, walk with us there. 

My prayer for people in times of profound struggle or pain is not that God will be with them – I believe deeply that God is always as near as our next breath – but that they may have a clear and present sense of God’s presence with them. 

The other thing the church says on Good Friday is that death is not the end of the story. But we mostly say that by saying: Come back tomorrow. This is not the final chapter – as final as those last verses may sound. So: Come back tomorrow. Easter is still coming. 

This is also a day to acknowledge anger. Anger at our common circumstances and all that they are demanding from us, costing us; and anger at those who could have helped it be otherwise. The virus, a product of Nature’s freedom to change and diversify, kills. Human greed, dishonesty, arrogance, short-sightedness and indifference have made its impact, its death toll, so much worse. 

I’ve heard from several members of the parish that you’re really struggling with anger. The process that resulted in going ahead with this week’s election, against all public health advice, was a focal point – but it’s not just that, by any means. 

Many of us have been taught that anger is bad or dangerous – or unChristian. But there’s plenty of anger in the Gospels, and throughout our scriptures. Anger is tricky; it’s easy to deceive ourselves when we’re angry. I know within myself that my capacity to see a just and loving resolution to a situation is not as good when I am angry. But it doesn’t follow that anger is bad. Anger is both natural and necessary. Anger is energy. Energy is good. Anger is willingness to act. Action is good. God loves justice more than we do – and God loves those who will suffer needlessly because of this disease more than we do. Just as we’re not alone in grief, so we are not alone in anger. 

Let’s join our voice with the voice of King David who, three millennia ago, wrote or had written a powerful psalm of indignation, Psalm 10… 


Easter Vigil Homily

Does it feel like Easter? Show me with hand motions!  Yes? No? Sorta? Not really? ….  On a scale of one to ten? … 

It’s a strange Easter, for sure. We can’t make a big noise ringing our bells all together.  We can’t share chocolates and fizzy juice after the end of this service. We can’t look at all the beautiful plants around the altar.  We can’t hide and find easter eggs on the church grounds. We can’t prepare beautiful anthems by our singers and instrumental musicians. (Well, we did one last week – but it took some doing! It’s harder to make music together when you can’t BE together!) We can’t cook a big meal to share with guests from near and far. 

Easter could feel kind of small, this year. 

But it helps me to remember that the first Easter was pretty small too. Only a few people knew, at first – and for kind of a while! Jesus rising from the dead didn’t change the world overnight – at least, not in ways most people noticed.  The change was deep and slow and mysterious, beneath the surface of things. We’re still living into that big, slow, deep change, the change in everything made by the first Easter. 

Way back at the beginning of all this, when things were just starting to go quiet, I remember thinking that it felt like Holy Saturday. The Saturday after Good Friday. That’s a time of waiting and preparing, in church….  of quietness and anticipation. We’re still carrying the sadness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday… but we’re getting ready for the big joy of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. I always feel kind of still inside, on Holy Saturday. And when I would drive around town on that day, it often seemed like kind of a quiet day for everybody. 

That’s why I thought of Holy Saturday, back when things were just starting to be canceled, when people were just starting to stay home. And here we still are – in a really, really long Holy Saturday….! 

There are different ideas about what happened on Holy Saturday, the first Holy Saturday, between when Jesus was laid in the tomb and when his friends found the tomb empty on Sunday morning. 

Some people and some churches imagine Jesus just … resting. Like a child sleeping in their bed or a seed sleeping in the earth. After all, he’d been through a few really hard, demanding days. Resting and healing so that sometime in the early early hours of Easter Morning he … got up. Folded up the grave cloths like a blanket, and walked away… 

Some people and some churches imagine what was happening on Holy Saturday very differently. They don’t picture Jesus lying there quietly. They picture him basically doing a jailbreak. Freeing those who have been held captive in the realm of Death, starting with Adam and Eve, understood as the ancestors of all human beings. Breaking down doors; shattering chains and locks.  This idea is called the Harrowing of Hell. There are lots of images of it – let me show you a good one, from a 12th or 13th century manuscript… 

The big green monster there, that’s Hell or the realm of the dead, imagined as a monster that’s holding all the dead people inside it. The Devil lies tied up at Jesus’ feet. And Jesus, with the help of an angel, is leading Adam and Eve to freedom, to new life in God, and the others will follow them!…. So in this version, Jesus isn’t resting; he’s fighting evil and death, for the sake of new life for all humanity. 

I’ve been thinking about how in this long Holy Saturday we are living through, both of these things are happening.  A lot of us feel a little entombed… like we’re closed up somewhere, just waiting for the right moment to emerge into new life. It might be restful, it might be restless, but we’re closed up, like Jesus in the tomb, like Noah and all the animals in the ark, and we wait. 

But in the meanwhile – others are doing battle with death itself, for the sake of life. Our friends who are health care providers are doing that. Doctors and nurses and hospital staff and all kinds of health care workers – mental and spiritual health too! – all over the country, all over the world, are fighting death, fiercely, day and night, as hard as they can. 

And biologists and epidemiologists and geneticists and statisticians and public health people and all kinds of scholars are putting together information as fast as they can, seeking more and more ways to keep people from getting sick and keep people who DO get sick from getting REALLY sick. 

And then there are mayors and governors and journalists and pastors and public health officials and university administrators and teachers and all kinds of other people who are working so, so hard right now, to make the best decisions they can to keep people safe, and to tell people the best things to do to keep themselves and each other safe.  

There are a LOT of people fighting death! Fighting for life! Right now! They are so brave, and they help me be brave. Even when I’m bored or restless or sad or weary or lonely. 

It is Easter tonight. But it’s also Holy Saturday, the waiting time. It will be Holy Saturday as long as some of us are waiting to come out of our tombs… and some of us are battling the powers of death. We know, tonight, that Jesus is with us, whether we are resting or fighting. 

And whenever we are able to be together again, in the same space: We will have a great big Easter party. No matter when it is! We will celebrate resurrection and new life! We will celebrate that death does not have the last word! We will celebrate release from our confinement! We will celebrate that nothing can separate us from God’s love! I’m looking forward to that party so much, friends. 

Before we continue with the Renewal of baptismal vows, let us pause to hold in prayer all the people, places and situations who are waiting to be able to come forth for a new chapter, like the people and animals on the ark; who are longing for freedom, like God’s people in Egypt; who need God’s healing breath, like the bones in Ezekiel’s vision… Whom are we holding in prayer this Easter night? ….