This Lent has been one few of us will ever forget. On Ash Wednesday, we were marked with ashes and reminded that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. Few of us realized just how Lent would become an extended meditation on the reality of death coming to so many, so suddenly, as a result of the Coronavirus.
We have all been led into the experience of the desert, far away not only from distractions — sports, late night shows, parties, outside commitments, face-to-face contact with most of our friends, family and neighbors — but also from the typical experiences of school and work.
Many of our Lenten resolutions have been revised by circumstances. Our fast has involved a fast from Mass, Holy Communion and the Sacrament of Penance. Our prayer has taken place not in churches but in domestic monasteries. Our almsgiving has featured not drawing near to those in need but socially distancing from them.
And if these were not all sufficient penances, some have been suffering with Coronavirus and caring for those who have gotten it or tragically succumbed to it. Others have had to deal with consequences of losing jobs. The Coronavirus, and its religious, civic, economic and social repercussions, have turned our Lent, and our life, upside down. Many of us come to the last week of Lent not gearing up with enthusiasm for the home stretch but trying stoically to survive.
If this Lent has been unusual, this Holy Week will be even stranger, when we will mark Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter not in church with our fellow Catholics but at home. The Liturgies of Holy Week are so powerful that, when we show up and are attentive, the prayers, readings, music, homilies, smells and bells will normally bring us into the heart of the mysteries. Prioritizing the time to be there already predisposes us to receive what God wants to give. Just entering into the church is a choice to leave the profane and enter the Sacred. Such settings cannot be replicated.
But this Holy Week we’re summoned to do the best we can. To live it well will require taking responsibility to give greater than normal cooperation with God’s grace, more focused prayer, and far greater interior and exterior preparation. The interior preparations are going to involve prayer and reading. There are some great books to help us. I would recommend Bishop Alban Goodier’s classic “The Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth, Part II, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection,” which could be read individually or, better, as a family.
It would also be a time to watch some of the great movies about Jesus, which help us retrace the steps of Jesus’ life that led to the Upper Room, Calvary and the tomb. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” can help us enter into the major moments and the suffering Jesus loved us enough to endure. The Visual Bible’s “Gospel of Matthew,” “Gospel of John,” “Gospel of Luke” and “Gospel of Mark,” while of variable cinematically quality, follow the words of Sacred Scripture and are a visual lectio divina. Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” likewise can help enter Jesus’ milieu. As most of us will have to watch the Sacred ceremonies on television or on devices, learning how to use these media better to focus on Jesus through movies like these will make it easier for us to pray through them better as we watch the ceremonies.
The exterior preparations are likewise important. They begin with trying to create, as best we can, Sacred space in our home where we can block out distractions. The place should be cleaned and put in order, like a well-cleaned church. We should dress up like we would if we were attending our parish. We should actively participate in the Liturgies to the extent possible, praying aloud the responses, kneeling, standing, and sitting as normal. Even though we will not be receiving Holy Communion, it would be good nevertheless to fast for an hour in preparation for Mass, to increase our hunger for God and to prevent needing to run needlessly to the restroom. We should turn off all our other devices, to prevent interruptions and distractions.
Another part of the external preparations is finding the broadcast to watch that will best foster prayer at home. Some will prefer the livestream from their church or rectory chapel celebrating with their parish priests. Others will find a one-camera broadcast from a cellphone via Facebook, with its various visual and audio limitations, hard to endure for the length of the Holy Week Liturgies. If so, a little homework to find a broadcast from churches or chapels used to televising Mass — with music, multiple angles to focus better on what is happening in the Liturgy, and much greater experience conveying the Sacred mysteries through media — would be time well spent. Many cathedrals are equipped each week to livestream the Mass with the bishop with many permanent high-definition cameras. Type “livestream Catholic Mass” in a search engine, click on the on-demand recordings of previous Sundays and find one that feeds your hungers.
A few other suggestions to live Holy Week well: On Palm Sunday, it’s fine to use the palms from last year that you have hopefully retained at home; otherwise, substitute other branches. Pray for the grace to welcome Jesus within like the people of Jerusalem welcomed Him within the city walls.
On Holy Thursday, when we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood that brings it to us, pray in a special way that the involuntary Eucharistic fast because of COVID-19 will help people learn to appreciate even more the importance of the Real Presence of Christ. Please pray, too, for priests and priestly vocations, that they may grow to model their lives on what they celebrate and never cease to bring this greatest gift of God to His people. After watching Mass, it might be good to drive to your local parish and spend an hour in vigil outside the church where Jesus rests in the Tabernacle.
On Good Friday, spend the whole day entering into the Passion of Christ as well as you can. In addition to the reading and videos mentioned above, it might be helpful to listen or watch one of the many recordings of Jesus’ seven last words available on the Internet, to pray the Stations at home, to begin the Novena to Divine Mercy. It would be a special day to entrust to Jesus all those who have died or whose lives are at risk because of the Coronavirus, that they might receive what Jesus gave the Good Thief.
On Holy Saturday, prepare interiorly for the Easter Vigil after the long Lent of 2020. It’s the longest and richest Mass of the year, in which we relive so many of the principal events of Salvation history. Stoke your gratitude for all God has done. Pray for the grace to enter fully into Jesus’ triumph over death, commit yourself to seek the things that are above, open yourself to the joy that the Risen Christ is with us until the end of time.
While the first Holy Week was chaotic, it still accomplished its purpose. As we relive those mysteries next week in the midst of multiple challenges, the God of miracles can nevertheless make it the holiest week or our year.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.