Sunday, April 5, 2020

Holy Week Begins: Betrayal, Abandonment, and Service

Palm Sunday this year was unprecedented for us (and people the world over). Not only have I never seen the likes of it; I don't think anything quite like it has ever happened. (Perhaps we have only just begun to notice how many unprecedented events are happening in our times, wherein the whole human race is becoming empirically connected and interactive in so many new ways.)

This is not to say that it was entirely unfamiliar. Certainly not. The Mass was beautiful at our Cathedral of Saint Thomas More in the Arlington, Virginia diocese. The bishop presided and gave a fine and deeply encouraging homily which we appreciated, after the long reading of the Passion of Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. All of these things resonated with many prior experiences of Palm Sundays in the past, as I've known since boyhood.

But it was very different too. We didn't have any palms. No palms on Palm Sunday? That was a big difference. Every year, we carry palms into the church. At the beginning of the liturgy, we celebrate Jesus's "triumphant" entry into Jerusalem, where the crowds hailed him with palm branches and cried, "Hosanna!" (the same crowds that would denounce him or go into hiding from fear by the end of the week).

But today, we had no palms in our hands. And we never went anywhere near the church building. We were at home in our living room in front of the television, "virtually participating" in the bishop's Mass via livestream on the diocese's YouTube channel. Generally speaking, "the faithful" weren't in any of the churches in the greater part of the world. Bishops and priests celebrated with a few assistants, religious sisters, and some essential personnel while Palm Sunday Mass was digitally broadcast to the rest of the people in their places of quarantine.

It's a very "strange" experience. But though it's obviously not something we would even want to become normal, as it cannot take the place of the whole human presence and physical proximity of the sacraments, I am drawn to find something "positive" and educative about these circumstances in which we find ourselves "together apart."

Jesus is still risen from the dead, and we are still members of his Church and participants in the Church's life. We remain united in the Spirit, in prayer, and in charity, while I am finding that the pastors of the Church (the ones I am blessed to know) are taking up and sharing the burdens of their people, seeking to inspire them, guide them, and pray for them with greater ardor.

I find this in my own bishop and our priests, as well as others — including some old friends who I haven't seen for a long time, who are ministering in far away places, and now I can pray with them in their churches by means of what is often a poor internet connection. It's not really the tech as such that matters; it's the creative and sometimes arduous efforts that so many are making so that we in the Church can "stay together" as much as possible in these days.

There is a desire for unity with the Lord and with one another, and special graces to express this unity through works of mercy in the ways that remain possible during the pandemic.

So we begin this Holy Week of the strange Year of Our Lord 2020, accompanying Jesus in the Paschal Mystery of his sacrificial death and the joy of his resurrection.

The Church's liturgical year still gives a constancy and unity to our lives, taking us through the perennial "remembrance" of the events of salvation that draw all of history and time into the worship of God through the definitive offering of the heart of Jesus that fills the whole world. His love gives meaning to everything. Some among us endure great suffering right now, and we are all troubled in various ways by the strange and unpredictable circumstances we are passing through. But Christ's love transforms all, and he is with us even in the most awful, incomprehensible hardships. 

As I have said before, one pastor whose ardent attention to the needs of his flock is so palpable and sustaining in these days is Pope Francis. He celebrated the Palm Sunday liturgy with a few other priests and people who assisted in essential matters in an otherwise empty Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. But the Mass was broadcast and streamed live all over the world. Estimates are that more than half a million people in Italy alone watch the Pope's daily Mass at 7:00 AM.

What mysterious graces may be at work here, in the midst of many sorrows and upheavals of these days?

Some words from the Pope's Homily for Palm Sunday:
“God saved us by serving us. We often think we are the ones who serve God. No, he is the one who freely chose to serve us, for he loved us first. It is difficult to love and not be loved in return. And it is even more difficult to serve if we do not let ourselves be served by God...
“But how did the Lord serve us? By giving his life for us... This astonishes us: God saved us by taking upon himself all the punishment of our sins. Without complaining, but with the humility, patience and obedience of a servant, and purely out of love...
“Jesus suffered betrayal... we were born to be loved and to love, and the most painful thing is to be betrayed by someone who promised to be loyal and close to us. We cannot even imagine how painful it was for God who is love.”
But Jesus “healed us by taking upon himself our infidelity and by taking from us our betrayals. Instead of being discouraged by the fear of failing, we can now look upon the crucifix, feel his embrace, and say: 'Behold, there is my infidelity, you took it, Jesus, upon yourself. You open your arms to me, you serve me with your love, you continue to support me… And so I will keep pressing on.'
“In today’s Gospel, Jesus says one thing from the Cross, one thing alone: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mt 27:46). These are powerful words. Jesus had suffered the abandonment of his own, who had fled. But the Father remained for him. Now, in the abyss of solitude, for the first time he calls him by the generic name 'God.' And 'in a loud voice' he asks the most excruciating question 'why': 'Why did you too abandon me?' These words are in fact those of a Psalm (cf. 22:2); they tell us that Jesus also brought the experience of extreme desolation to his prayer. But the fact remains that he himself experienced that desolation: he experienced the utmost abandonment, which the Gospels testify to by quoting his very words: 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?'
“Jesus experienced total abandonment in a situation he had never before experienced in order to be one with us in everything. He did it for me, for you, to say to us: 'Do not be afraid, you are not alone. I experienced all your desolation in order to be ever close to you.'
“That is the extent to which Jesus served us: he descended into the abyss of our most bitter sufferings, culminating in betrayal and abandonment. Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: 'Courage, open your heart to my love. You will feel the consolation of God who sustains you.'
“So, in these holy days, in our homes, let us stand before the Crucified One, the fullest measure of God’s love for us, and before the God who serves us to the point of giving his life, and let us ask for the grace to live in order to serve. May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others.”
     ~Pope Francis (Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020)