Bringing Holy Week Home in a Time of Pandemic

Bringing Holy Week Home in a Time of Pandemic

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by Msgr. Francis V. Cilia

We are preparing to celebrate Holy Week under extraordinary circumstances, in a time of pandemic, a week in which our celebrations will preclude personal participation in the mysteries of salvation and reception of the Eucharist. 

It is in this context that we will soon enter Holy Week, remembering those long-ago events of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day.  Although sheltered and isolated from one another, we are invited to participate virtually in each day’s liturgies.  Through technology, we are given the choice to follow the liturgies of our own parishes, our bishop, the pope or countless celebrations throughout the world, all through the mystery of the Internet.

However we choose to observe this holiest of weeks in 2020, there is a way we can “bring home” the lessons and the spirit of these days, even when – or especially – when most are confined to those very same homes.

Palm Sunday is a proclamation of the faithfulness of God in the face of the extremes, the fickleness of humanity.  We make ourselves present to Jesus’ joyful and victorious entry to Jerusalem.  Crowds greet him, palm and olive branches carpet his path and shouts of “Hosanna” fill the air.  Our liturgy invites us to join those crowds, to hail the Lord as our King.  Yet in just a few minutes, we listen to the prophet Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant who proclaims: “I give my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. . .I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 50:6a, 7b).

Psalm 22 places on our lips the response, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  In the Passion accounts of Saint Matthew and Saint Mark, these are the final words Jesus utters from the Cross.  While they may leave us confused as to why Jesus quoted that psalm, every Jew knew that Psalm 22 does not end on a note of hopelessness, but one of faith:  “But you, O Lord, be not far from me; O my help, hasten to aid me. . .I will proclaim your name. . .in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.”  In those last moments of Jesus’ life, even as He faced His death, the Lord affirms his trust, his faith in God.

This paradox is reaffirmed in the ancient hymn that is quoted in the Letter to the Philippians:  “Christ Jesus. . .emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . .obedient to the point of death. . . Because of this, God greatly exalted him.”

As we listen to, or even take our own part in the proclamation of the Passion according to Saint Matthew, we recount how the crowds who had sung their Hosannas began calling for Jesus to be crucified.  His disciples abandoned and betrayed Him, others condemned Him.  We know the names that are recounted in the gospel: Peter and Judas, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, Barabbas.

Palm Sunday offers an overture of what we will be celebrating for the next seven days, introducing the major themes that will be highlighted throughout the rest of the week. This would be a good day for us to take a few extra minutes to reflect on our relationship with the Lord, whose love for us never loses its intensity, its focus.  We do so not in some pietistic guilt, but rather in the hope of following His example of fidelity, even in the midst of pain, suffering and abandonment. 

On Holy Thursday morning, Bishop Cantú will celebrate the Chrism Mass.  In normal times, the Diocese of San José celebrates this annual Mass on the Tuesday evening before Holy Week.  At that time, all of the priests and deacons who serve in the Diocese would gather with religious and lay representatives from every parish, mission and chapel for the blessing and consecration of the Holy Oils (Oil of Catechumens and Oil of the Sick) and the Sacred Chrism that will be used in celebrations of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, and Anointing of the Sick throughout the Diocese for the coming year.  Although in emergencies, a priest can bless the Holy Oils, only the Bishop can consecrate Sacred Chrism that is used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Ordination of Bishops and Priests.

The significance of this Mass is the connection it shows between the Bishop’s ministry and the sacramental life of every parish, mission, school, and apostolate in the Diocese.  We are all co-workers in this “vineyard of the Lord,” where priests and deacons share the ministry of the Bishop and carry it out in every corner of the Diocese.

This year, because of COVID-19, Bishop Cantú will be joined by only a few priests: the Vicar General, Vicar for Clergy and the six Deans.  While the Renewal of Priestly Promises usually precedes the blessing and consecration of the oils, this significant annual rite will be delayed to a time when all priests will be able again to gather with the bishop.

The Chrism Mass invites all of us to reflect upon how connected we are to one another in what we call our “local Church,” this Diocese of San José, and to understand how, through the bishop’s ministry, we are called to be one in the Lord.

Later on Holy Thursday, the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates the Last Supper, what we might call the “First Eucharist,” as Jesus handed Himself over to his disciples.  In bread and wine, they received from Him his very Body and Blood.  Although not observed this year because of Coronavirus concerns, the Washing of the Feet, or “Mandatum,” is usually part of this Mass, recalling how the Lord rose from the table (of the Last Supper) and washed the feet of his apostles.  The lesson of the Mandatum (“commandment”) is simple to state, though not always easy to live: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. . . I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:15,34).

How do or can we wash one another’s feet?  How many ways can we find to “love one another” in the same way that Jesus loves us?  How can we, sheltered at home as we are, show our reverence for one another, a reverence rooted in love and service?

On Good Friday, we celebrate the most somber of all days. There is no Mass, but instead a liturgy of three separate movements. The priest enters in silence, lies prostrate before the altar and, without the usual Sign of the Cross and greeting, recites an opening prayer.  Then begins the Liturgy of the Word, which culminates with the proclamation of the Passion according to Saint John, the Crucifixion of the King. 

After a brief homily, we pray the Solemn Intercessions. These are ten prescribed intercessions or prayers, one for each of the following:  for the Church, for the Pope, for all the members of the Church, for Catechumens, for the Christian Unity, for the Jewish People, for Those who do not believe in Christ, for Those who do believe in God, for Those in Public Office, and for Those in Tribulation.  Each year, the Bishop may add a prayer related to a particular concern.  This year, the Holy Father has sent us such a prayer, to be observed throughout the world, “For the Afflicted in Time of Pandemic.”  It is worth including that prayer here, in the hope that it will become our own in this time of special need:

Almighty ever-living God,
only support of our human weakness,
look with compassion upon the sorrowful condition of your children
who suffer because of this pandemic;
relieve the pain of the sick,
give strength to those who care for them,
welcome into your peace those who have died
and, throughout this time of tribulation,
grant that we may all find comfort in your merciful love.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

The second part of the liturgy is The Adoration of the Holy Cross.  As the Cross is shown to all, we hear sung three times the following: “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world” and our response, “Come let us adore.”  In other years, all present are invited to come forward and to show a sign of reverence to the Cross.  However, this year, even if we were present to this liturgy and not by livestream, we would have been asked not to touch the Cross, but to make a simple sign of reverence, perhaps with a bow.

At the conclusion of the Adoration of the Cross, Eucharist consecrated at the Evening Mass on Holy Thursday is placed upon the altar.  After the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer,

Holy Communion is distributed, the liturgy concludes with the Prayer after Communion and the Prayer over the People.  In silence, the ministers leave, after genuflecting to the Cross.

Even in good times, Good Friday is a day of desolation, of quiet, the only day of the year in which there is no celebration of the Mass.  In this period of isolation and sheltering in place, when we feel disconnected from one another and from what passes for our normal lives, we just might have a greater appreciation for the Cross, not only in the life of Jesus, but in our own lives.  Usually, our hurried lives do not allow us to pause and to reflect upon the Lord’s Passion and Death.  Perhaps, in addition to spending extra time with the account of the Lord’s Passion, found in chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John, we might also reflect upon these lines from today’s first reading, celebrating the mystery of our Redemption:

Yet it was our pain that he bore,
our sufferings he endured.
We thought of him as stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted,

But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed.

We had all gone astray like sheep,
all following our own way;
But the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.  (Isaiah 53:4-6)

As the hymn of the same name asks the profound question, what “Wondrous Love” is this?

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this,
That caused the Lord of bliss,
To bear the dreadful curse,
For my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul. (Lyrics by Fernando Ortega)

During the day of Holy Saturday, the sacraments are not celebrated, except for the benefit of those who are at the point of death.  The liturgy cannot begin until nightfall. In the darkness, a new fire is kindled and from that fire the Easter Candle, symbol of the Light of Christ, is lighted.  In normal times, there would be a procession leading into the church, during which the deacon or priest three times chants “The Light of Christ,” to which all respond, “Thanks be to God.”  The Easter Proclamation, in Latin, Exsultet, is chanted, calling all creation to rejoice, as it recalls the saving work of God throughout history and the significance of this night:

This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children,from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.

This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.

Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.

O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!

Underscoring how all of the history of salvation led to the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, the Liturgy of the Word (in as many as seven Old Testament Readings) traces the same themes from Creation through the Prophets, culminating in a reading from the sixth chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans (“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?. . .You must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”).  The Alleluia, not heard for six weeks, is sung to acclaim the Gospel account of the finding of the Empty Tomb on Easter morning (Matthew 28:1-10).

After a homily, there would usually follow the Baptismal Liturgy, Easter being the day most suited to our Catechumens’ completion of their initiation into Christ and the Church, their sharing in Christ’s dying to sin and rising to eternal life.  Given the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, these rites are postponed to a later date.  There will be no Blessing of Water this year, but simply the Renewal of Baptismal Promises.  General Intercessions are offered and the Liturgy of the Eucharist proceeds as at a normal Sunday Mass, concluding with double alleluias at the end of the dismissal:  “Go in the peace of Christ, Alleluia! Alleluia!

Many years ago, I heard a story, told by one of our priests, about when he was a boy, participating in the liturgies of Good Friday, at a time in our past when there was much more emphasis on the Crucifixion of the Lord than the Resurrection.  Though in his mind, that of a child, he wondered whether Easter would follow that Good Friday, he could not help but catch the scent of the Easter Lilies, waiting to burst from imprisonment in the sacristy, so as to adorn the sanctuary for Easter.  And that scent reminded him, even on that grim Friday, that Resurrection was just around the corner! 

In our dark moments, the scent of the lilies is also our assurance that, just as night gives way to day, so Christ now lives forever in the glory of the Resurrection, a glory to which we are all called to share.  Please take the time to smell the blossoms this spring, and know that Easter glory and hope are always near.

As we sit in our homes, separated from one another, we are never truly alone, so long as we reach out in our thoughts, our prayers, our emails, FaceTime, Zoom, and telephone calls.  The true miracle of the Internet allows us to be part of a common prayer.  Liturgy is “the work of the people.”  We are doing this work in new and different ways, because it is all that we have.  My prayer for you and all is that when we have the privilege of returning to our parish churches for the celebration of Mass, we may more than ever cherish and make our own the sacred work of this people.  Happy Easter to all.