April 5, 2020
Fr. Joseph Jacobi
Today, in a world changed by the coronavirus, Catholics stand on the porch of Holy Week and feel the pain of not being able to enter together into the House of God. Faithful lay Catholics who all their lives long have been nourished by the beautiful rituals of this week, are in pain. For the first time in their life, they cannot celebrate together these sacred, life-giving rituals.
They cannot join in a procession waving palms and singing “Hosanna,” nor stand side by side and listen with rapt attention to the Passion account from Matthew. They cannot celebrate the great gift of the Eucharist at the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday nor adore the cross of salvation on Good Friday. Faithful Catholics throughout America and the world will not enter into the mother of all vigils, the Great Easter Vigil, that dazzling night when the bright light of divine love scatters the darkness of death This Easter Vigil newborn Christians will not emerge from the womb of the baptismal font into a new life in the Risen Christ. Easter Sunday will be a time to celebrate the Resurrection, but many will still feel entombed by stay at home restrictions and the fear of being destroyed by an invisible foe.
This week is also a sacrificial one for priests and deacons, whose hearts are broken, because they cannot celebrate this Holiest Week of the year with their people. We – priests, deacons, lay people–won’t be together because we are willing to sacrifice what is most important to us so that others might live. Because we care about the common good, we give up what we find life and joy in. So that doctors and nurses and hospitals will not be overwhelmed, so that health care providers can be protected and saved and needless live not be lost– we are willing to sacrifice even what we most cherish—the great gift of the Eucharist.
Today, as we stand on the porch of Holy Week, we look back to Ash Wednesday at the end of February and the beginning of this long Lenten Season. In some ways, Ash Wednesday feels like it happened in another lifetime, a life before the coronavirus spread across our land like wildfire. But recall on Ash Wednesday how we began this Lenten Journey literally etching a very important truth into our bodies: that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. With death all around us today, we remember we are dust. We are ash. We are.
There was another formula used with the imposition of ashes on that Wednesday toward the end of February, a shining invitation which beams like a bright beacon into the darkness of these COVID-19 days. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” In other words, turn around and give your heart to the Great Good news of God’s saving love in Christ. Change the way you think about life, about God, and receive the truth of God’s boundless love for you in His Son.
To believe in the Gospel, we need to remember the Good News proclaimed on Christmas Eve, from the same Gospel of Matthew as today’s Passion account, that the newborn Savior would be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” The Son of God is born for our salvation, is born to die for us and save us from the power of sin and the darkness of death. But the Son of God also empties himself of all claim to divine privilege in order to become one with us, Emmanuel, in order to suffer with us. We remember during this Holiest Week of the year how he becomes one with us in our suffering—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So that even when we feel most alone, when we feel abandoned by God, we know He indeed is with us, Emmanuel.
Jesus cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me.” Deeper than the physical pain of the nails and the struggle to breathe, stronger than the pain of being abandoned by those closest to him, is the pain piercing Jesus’ very spirit on the cross, as he feels abandoned by his Father.
So, Jesus knows our pain during this time of the coronavirus crisis, especially the pain of those dying alone from COVID-19 and their family members who are unable to be at their bedside. Jesus knows the pain of faithful Catholics who feel abandoned by God, who at the very time they need the Eucharist the most are not able to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.
The Son of God knows the depth of our pain, has tasted the dregs of our feeling separated from God and all alone in the darkness. So that with Jesus we can cry out in pain from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” and know with him that the Father who has given us life, will save us and will bring us to new life.
Jesus’ cry from the cross is the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm he knew by heart, a psalm which we sing on this Palm Sunday, because it is a prayer of great trust in God. The author of this psalm, like Jesus on the cross, feels forsaken by God, but he directs his anguish to God in prayer. Feeling abandoned by God, this faith-filled psalmist expresses solid trust that God is still taking care of him.
In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Jesus trusts that while hanging from the cross he is still the beloved Son of His Father, who is with Jesus most powerfully when he feels the Father’s absence. Joined to Jesus, giving ourselves daily to him, uniting our sacrifices of love at this time to the sacrifice of love he made on the cross, we know in the depths of our being we are not alone.