“What do you think? Will he come to the festival or not?” (Jn 11:56). So the people wondered that April in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago. Will he come to the festival or not?
What a Holy Week and Easter this will be! We can imagine in the future, when please God we’ve come through this business, saying to each other, Do you remember 2020?
Our hearts are going out in many directions at present, but I do feel for those who were all set to be baptized or received or confirmed at the Easter Vigil. Do hang on in there; your hour will come! Likewise, those getting ready to marry after Easter. So many people to remember. Let’s carry each other together at this time.
I think of all the liturgies, throughout the world, that will take place behind closed doors, with minimal participation. It’s as if we’re back in the days of the catacombs or the penal times. Best, I feel, if we don’t think of many separate, inaccessible, truncated liturgies, some live-streamed, some not, but of one great, single liturgy – one commemoration, one prayer, one lifting up of the Cross. A prayer rising heavenwards and descending earthwards, enveloping us all. This coming week the Western Easter falls, one week later the Eastern Easter. One prayer. Surely this is how God, who sees everything together at once, sees it. One prayer out of one multiple distress. How can God not hear it and respond with the many different comfortings we need? In the Book of Numbers, there’s an account of a plague that ravages the Israelites in the desert and threatens to annihilate them. There’s a dramatic moment when Aaron the Priest fills his censer with incense – a symbol of prayer – rushes in among the people, making atonement for them. He stands between the living and the dead and makes atonement, and the plague was stopped (cf. Num 16:41ff).
This Holy Week your priests and your bishop and their brothers through the world are lifting up Jesus to the Father for us all. And Jesus our High Priest, ever living to make intercession for us (cf. Heb 7:25), is lifting up all of us to his Father.
“What do you think? Will he come to the festival or not?”
My expectation is that we will look back on this Holy Week and Easter, and say, “Yes, it was strange”. But we’ll also say: there was something special about it. We caught the scent of the atoning incense. We did find comfort. We felt the touch of God. He came to the festival. Nothing, least of all a virus, will stop him coming to the festival, for us and for our salvation.
This is the beautiful prayer we have been given for this Good Friday:
“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 sicj,
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.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
So let’s go to the festival too. This year, we can’t keep our Passover in our churches. But we can keep it in our hearts and homes. One suggestion from Canada: on Palm Sunday, put a green branch on your front door or at your window. If we can go out and clap for the NHS, we can let a green branch sing Hosanna to the King of kings, surely!
We have been encouraged to make the times of our local liturgies known, so that we can connect with them. The papal liturgies will go out through the world. There’s EWTN. There’s good information on our diocesan website. There is material beyond counting on YouTube. But don’t be ashamed either just to take a quiet time – at 7pm on Maundy Thursday, at 3pm on Good Friday, at the time of the Paschal Vigil, on Easter Sunday morning. There’s nothing wrong in going to the church of the heart, the “inner room” Jesus speaks of (Mt 6:6), reading the readings, reflecting, praying. Above all, I recommend: read the Gospels, read the Passion stories – go to the festival with all those characters, good and bad, faithful and feeble. It’s a story that wants to get into us, and we into it.
In the East this is called the Great Week. And what Jesus above all, what Mary too and John, and the faithful women and the other disciples went through that week was a “great” suffering. It was different for each of them: the suffering of Peter’s denial, the suffering of a people rejecting their Messiah, the suffering those who understood what has happening, the agony of Judas. What about Pilate even? What about his wife: “I have suffered much over him [Jesus] in a dream” (Mt 27:19)? What about Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s good to think of this, and how the suffering of Great Week is great enough to take into itself our current suffering, and change it, as Good Friday was changed into Easter. Let’s try to connect to all this, and take with us those we are physically separated from, take all the suffering around us, not forgetting to reach out where we can.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil. And the people asked, “Who is this?” (Mt 21:10). This is a question worth carrying through this week. Who is this? It is God who answers that question. “God raised him on high”, says St Paul (Phil 2:9). May the Father raise the Son high in the church of our hearts and homes this Holy Week and Easter! May Christ become more real to us! And raise our whole world with himself!
(St Mary’s House, 5 April 2020)