By BISHOP EDWARD J. BURNS
A BISHOP’S PERSPECTIVE in the Juneau Empire
April 13, 2014

One of the challenges we face in American culture is to retain a sense of the sacred. By sacred I am not solely referring to our formal religious observances (while these are very important) but also to those occasions in our culture during which we set aside ordinary activities to celebrate or commemorate what is highly valued and important in our society.

For example, Memorial Day, which is coming up at the end of May, is not really about celebrating a three-day weekend, hosting barbecues or discounts on consumer items. Instead, this is a sacred day dedicated to mourning our war dead and honoring those who died serving our country. At gatherings across the country, including here in Juneau, citizens join veterans in both honoring those who have died in our country’s wars and in reaffirming as a society and a national community the values of dedication, service and self-sacrifice that we believe in. It is a day set apart and dedicated to this important and significant activity. Those who have fallen in battle for our country are deserving of our respect. So, as a society, we set a day apart dedicated to the important, necessary and public activity of commemoration and gratitude.

Similarly, although in a much less somber way than on Memorial Day, we celebrate the founding of our country on Independence Day as a public holiday with fireworks, parades and other events as we hold sacred our independence and freedom.

Parishioners of the Cathedral of the Nativity and of Holy Trinity  Episcopal join together for an outdoor Palm Sunday in downtown Juneau, April 13, 2014  procession
Parishioners of the Cathedral of the Nativity and of Holy Trinity Episcopal join together for an outdoor Palm Sunday in downtown Juneau, April 13, 2014

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the most sacred week of the entire year for Christians. During this week, we commemorate the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday and his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.

Holy Week provides an opportunity to participate spiritually in the mysteries of Christ’s passion, sufferings, death and resurrection. It leads to a greater appreciation of the initiative that God has taken to be one with us in our sufferings, identifying his love for us by sending his Son, and by his desire to be one with us for all eternity through the gift of salvation won for us by Christ’s victory over death.

Also, beginning tomorrow night, the Jewish community worldwide begins the great festival of Passover, which commemorates and celebrates the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

Annually, during these spring days, the foundational events of both the Christian and the Jewish communities are remembered, commemorated and celebrated. In some countries, the days of Holy Week and Easter are celebrated not only as religious observances but as public holidays.

This is not the case in the United States these days, which follows a more secular approach to the calendar. But a calendar is more than simply a succession of days, weeks, months and years. Rather, how we mark our calendar tells us who we are and what we hold sacred. It defines our identity. For this reason it is essential that we find ways to acknowledge the sacred as a valued and necessary component of a healthy culture.

For example, I think of how until very recently it was a custom in many parts of the country for businesses and schools to close on Good Friday, either all day or at noon. Although this practice had the practical purpose of accommodating those who wished to participate in religious services on that day, it was not something required by law. Rather, it was a custom that honored the sacredness of this day for the many citizens who observed it.

Nowadays, in most of the country and in our own state and region, Good Friday is simply another workday like any other. My concern is about the overall trend in our society to be entirely focused on work, school, consumption or recreation, with little, if any, public space (with the exception of Sunday) for the sacred and that which pertains to what is truly religious.

We need to find a way to acknowledge and honor the sacred, not only in our secular and civic observances but at the sacred times of the various religious communities that are a part of our pluralistic American society.

As for myself, I am looking forward to this, our most sacred week and to being united in prayer with all those who are observing Holy Week and Easter in our community and around the world. Similarly, my warmest wishes and prayers are with the members of the Jewish community as they begin their observance of Passover tomorrow evening.