“Holy Week and Easter will never be the same.”
This is the comment we get most abundantly from our pilgrims upon their return from the Holy Land. It comes in through our surveys so often that you would think they all copied one another’s responses – cutting and pasting the same thing over and over again. Although it’s humorous to read these same responses time after time, it’s always very powerful to see the number of people who are going to be able to share in the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection in a way they never could before. It’s what I was most excited for.
I returned from my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May 2019. Ever since, I’ve been waiting patiently through all the other liturgical seasons for Holy Week. Even when my fellow pilgrims would tell me how excited they were to celebrate Christmas after having been to Bethlehem, my response would always be “Yeah, but I’m really excited for Easter.”
Finally, Ash Wednesday had arrived – I had spent a few holy hours prayerfully discerning what I would do for Lent, and I had come up with a plan that I knew would prove to be fruitful if faithfully executed. I joined a Lenten book study, I attended a Lenten retreat, and I was fully active in community life. As I prayed the Stations of the Cross that first Friday, I immersed my thoughts into the actual Way of the Cross, walking down the streets where Jesus once carried the weight of the world. All was well.
Then Covid-19 hit.
Before I even knew it was happening, one thing after another was slowly being taken out of my Lenten playbook. Mass: cancelled. Adoration: cancelled. Stations of the Cross: cancelled. Lenten book study: cancelled. Community events: cancelled. My Lenten promise of cutting down my screen time went straight out the window when everything I once did in person went digital. My promise of being more attentive to others was nipped in the bud when people were literally taken out of my life. My Lent went from “potentially fruitful” to “dumpster fire.” This wasn’t the Lent I had envisioned for myself.
My heart broke just a tiny bit more when I found out my diocese had cancelled all public Holy Week and Easter events. This joyful anticipation had turned to sorrow. In the midst of all these events that transpired that were beyond my control, I had to sit back and think, “How do I see Jesus in this?”
My mind pulled me back to Jerusalem, to the site of St. Peter Gallicantu.
Named in commemoration of Peter’s three denials of Jesus, the thing that I remember most from that church is something a little less known. It is believed that Jesus was kept below this church as a prisoner shortly after His arrest as He awaited trial. Pilgrims can venture down into the little cavern – what’s basically a deep chasm with a few sprinkled holes for light. As I stood in that pit, it was easy to understand the emotions of the imprisoned Christ; confined to this one small cell, encased in a darkness with no knowledge of the workings of the outside world. This time would be spent waiting, anticipating the unknown that lay in the days ahead of Him. My home had become my prison cell, my St. Peter Gallicantu. Here I find myself imprisoned, awaiting the unknown, unsure of what the near future brings.
Because of you my acquaintances shun me;
You make me loathsome to them;
Caged in, I cannot escape;
My eyes grow dim from trouble.
All day I call on you, Lord;
I stretch out my hands to you.
Are your marvels declared in the darkness,
Your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Why do you reject my soul, Lord,
And hide your face from me?
Because of you friend and neighbor shun me;
My only friend is darkness.
I moved on to the Garden of Gethsemane.
It’s here that Christ tastes the beginnings of His Passion. His closest companions have left Him alone in His sufferings, even His Father seems far as He cries out,
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”
In His darkest hour, in the deep pain and torment, Jesus finds Himself abandoned; the Twelve and the crowds that normally surrounded him at all hours are nowhere to be found.
My surroundings fade into the low olive trees of that Garden. In my greatest time of need I yearn to kneel amongst the beauty of my church, but my kneeler is now my hardwood floor and my pew the edge of my bed. The Mass that I could once celebrate side-by-side with the faithful is now live-streamed alone in my bedroom. My holy hours that were once in the Adoration Chapel are now even lonelier without the presence of a single Host. As I pray over and over again for this plague to be pulled from our world, I find myself begging the Lord to take this cup from me, too.
Finally, I end on Calvary.
When I first walked the path that Jesus took to Calvary, I was astonished at how busy it was. Located in the bustling Old City of Jerusalem, people walk shoulder to shoulder through the narrow alleyways, squeezing past each other and crisscrossing paths without even thinking twice. Jesus would have carried His cross through those bustling corridors – and no one would have been surprised by the sight of it. Despite the nearness of those around Him, He was never more alone. Those that loved Him could only weep at His pain. Although they stood there, they were disconnected. This cross wasn’t theirs to carry, and no one could save Him from carrying it. As Jesus was mounted and raised above the mockers and the crucifiers on Calvary, He calls to Heaven,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
My Lent has been one of crying out. Although I can see the faces of my friends and colleagues scattered across my computer, I long even more to be with them; to hug them, to walk with them, to eat a simple meal by their sides. I can speak to them, see them, but we’re disconnected. They seem so close, but I cannot touch them. My life of community is nailed to that cross; it has physically died, and I can’t save it.
This life is one I have never known before, one that many of us have not had to experience until now. There is great suffering to all in many different forms. We feel forsaken.
But the Lord has gone before us as an example. We see a series of painful events strung together, and often we forget: three days later, there is great joy and celebration. There is an answer far greater than the sorrowful problem placed before us. We are in a season of turmoil, but our suffering can be bearable because He bore it first. With His suffering of the Passion, we have something to unite ours to, and Someone to help us bear it. And because our Lord is faithful, because He desires our good, because we are His beloved ones, we can trust that there will be a day of triumph and joy. What a gift it is, to be so united to our Lord this Holy Week.
“Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the Glory of God?”