It is Holy Saturday, and I am in the process of returning to life.
Now, that is an overstatement in the extreme; but it is prompted by my Triduum experience thus far.
Thursday, Holy Thursday, what I was raised to know as Maundy Thursday (maundy an old English corruption of the latin mandatum, that is “commandment”—“a new commandment I give to you…”) came.
Now what begins the Triduum (the “three days”) is the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist the Thursday night. So, the day is of great spiritual significance to priests, for understandable reasons; and much of the day is spent in reflection on what is to be commemorated that evening. Without the Eucharist, we’ve no purpose, but more profoundly, without the community constituted by it, we are without place in this world.
So, as a priest, I approach the coming celebration with eagerness to express my appreciation for this great gift to humanity, and quite particularly to me as priest celebrant of this holy mystery. But what is it to do so alone? Where two or three are not gathered?
I am fortunate in that I am one of the few married priests of the Latin rite Church. So, entering into the chill, empty sanctuary on Thursday night was not something done alone (as with too many of my colleagues), but in the company of my wife Biserka and daughter Helena.
We did the Mass prescribed for that evening. The footwashing omitted, the repose of the sacrament proscribed by episcopal edict, it stayed right where it was in the tabernacle. At the end of our muted celebration, we three did clear the sanctuary of the furnishings expressly needed for the Eucharist, but we did not leave it bare. And quietly, with the lights shut, we made our way back to the rectory.
And then I fell ill.
No, it was not the virus, but likely something more of a bacterial nature. No respiratory distress, but I was not well. I won’t go into the unpleasant details of it all, but Good Friday afternoon found me still in bed and feeling wretched. My only consolation being that in our present predicament, there was no need to find a replacement for the liturgy that would ordinarily have taken place at 3 o’clock. The words of assurance from our Lord to his disciples concerning Lazarus came to mind, “this sickness does not lead unto death.” Nonetheless, I felt a kind of death.
And that is something that we have all felt in recent weeks.
If faithful, the deprivation of the traditions that have held us together as a community for millenia is deeply felt. The Eucharist, the body of Christ given that constitutes us as His body here on Earth, that joins us to Him, but also draws us all into communion with each other, this has been and continues to be physically absent for most. Good Friday has always been that brief absolute withdrawal of it so that we remain mindful of just how precious it is. We feel this keenly now that this withdrawal is prolonged, but at least we know what is missing.
If a person of vague spirituality, agnostic in religion, atheistic in practice, this pandemic has been an unwitting glimpse of hell—we Christians do not believe in death as an end, but a transition to eternity, spent either in the community of the saints, or in company of the damned. Both persist through eternity, each in their activity which is one of blessed rejoicing for the saints, and accursed drudgery for those who dwell in that infernal place. Like the dull grey town of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, hell is not a place of flames and demons, but rather one of boredom, populated by a citizenry that lives in mutual isolation, the only gathering being the queue at the bus stop for their one means of escape; a line that few join.
Our society is presently in a strange stasis: activity continues to sustain the essentials of life but the economy itself does not grow (and, indeed, is likely shrinking), and some minor comforts continue to be provided: mindless entertainment on our screens, and junk food still on the supermarket shelves. We are not reduced to staple foods in need of proper preparation, the frozen pizza is still available, the take-out menus are still operative; we can still find distraction from our thoughts where we will, the video game and social media can occupy our minds somewhat, but the boredom with it all is setting in and being replaced with a restlessness.
That restlessness is for truly wide-open spaces, and authentic human society; these things are of God for whom we have a deeper restlessness, as our patron St. Augustine famously confessed. The walking trails have all been shut down by government edict, the parks are taped off by city order. Our daily ramblings are restricted to the city streets, the town sidewalks; going for a drive is just that—you can stop, get out, but no venturing far from your vehicle where you risk encounter with another. And this takes me back to Lewis’ novel: the bus excursion that takes the inhabitants of the grey sprawling metropolis away, not by terrestrial road, but by heavenly highway to a place of green meadows and blue skies where they are invited to run free, the grass under their bare feet; and to encounter the saintly. And yet so many who had come that far had grown reluctant, so accustomed had they become to the cold concrete and restraining geometry of the cityscape, they could not abide it (the soft grass actually hurts their feet) and so clamor back onto the bus.
I think we as Christians know to take that bus, and to joyfully, if nervously, debark upon arrival, with a tip for the driver. These days for us, will grow to be less a long Good Friday, and more an extended Holy Saturday, for we by faith know that this is really where we are in life, that in-between place where Heaven is in view even as our feet stand upon a blessed Earth. Unlike the confused apostles who isolated themselves in the upper room, cringing in fear, we are more like their Hebrew forebears at the first Passover who wait in expectation for the liberation to come, that freedom to worship our God and to be His people.
Saturday has come, and I am feeling much better. I apologize for my absence from the website. Not being particularly proficient at editing it, I spend quite a bit of time making errors that need correcting before I can actually post. The lack of video may have struck some. Other parishes have facility, equipment and software for such productions. I don’t even have a webcam! But I’m working on figuring out what can be done.
If you’ve noticed our bell sounding at new hours, and not striking off the hour, but ringing off an arbitrary number, that is because we are responding to a request by the bishop, and the local community with rather aged equipment. The bishop asked that it be rung at 9, noon, 3 and 6 in tribute to health care workers. The local community has asked for 7:30 to be the time of saluting. St. Augustine’s has always rung the bell at 8, noon and 6. However, in consulting with I.T. Verdin, the company that made our ringing mechanism, the clock was never designed for the ringing of secular hours, but rather for summoning the flock to mass, and ringing the Angelus (3×3 rings). So, the poor clockwork mind is now rather confused by these requests and is laboring to ring something at each of these times.
So, if you have the curious auditory experience of hearing our St. Michael bell toll five at noon or seven at 3 o’clock, do excuse it; it’s doing, and ding-donging, the best it can.
Father Scott Whitfield