29th March 2020
The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Passiontide begins)
Pastoral Letter No. 5
Fr Andrew writes:
On this fifth Sunday of Lent the Church now moves to the ‘business end’ of Lent as we enter Passiontide, which leads us to Holy Week (Palm Sunday is next Sunday 5th April).
There will be more to say and reflect on that is specific to Holy Week, but today I want to offer some reflections on the last few days when first church worship was suspended and then the churches closed altogether.
I feel very torn by the closure of churches. On one hand it is absolutely right that as a society and nation we should be doing everything to minimise the spread of the virus. On the other hand I feel deeply uncomfortable about having to shut the church. Yet, that is the situation we are in. There are three points I would like to reflect on in relation to the closure of the church: all will be scattered; the stripping of the altars; and Holy Saturday.
All will be scattered Fr Joe drew my attention to the prescience of this text from St John’s gospel:
‘Jesus said: “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”’ (John 16.32, 33)
These words come in the passage of John in which Jesus is telling his disciples both about the tribulations to come and cost of discipleship in general terms but also, specifically, that at his glorification - his death on the cross - all will be scattered and all will be thrown up in the air.
There is something of that feel at the moment. We are all scattered, each to our own homes. Yet as Christ is not alone because of the intimacy of his relationship with the Father, so we are not alone because of union with him by baptism and faith. Indeed the Holy Spirt continues to bind us together in love even if we are scattered. Those verses invite us to take heart (the literal meaning of courage) because these forces of evil, pestilence, fear and terror that stalk the world have been overcome by the glorification of Jesus in his death and resurrection.
The Stripping of the Altars One of the most poignant moments in all the Church’s liturgy is when the altars of the church are stripped on Maundy Thursday. After the intimacy of the washing of feet after Christ’s example, and commemoration of the Last Supper and institution of the Eucharist, all is stripped away. At that moment all that is left is the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament (the consecrated bread of the Eucharist). And then led by the Sacrament, we make our way in procession to ‘watch and pray’ (as the disciples were asked to do – and failed – in the Garden of Gethsemane). That is the founding Vigil of the Church: a vigil being a time of watching and praying.
When the church remained open but public worship was suspended (up until last Monday): the church had a solemn and beautiful feel. People came in to pray - were totally sensible about distancing - and there was a deeply hushed and reverent feel: it was a vigil taking place. It reminded me of how a church feels on that night of Maundy Thursday and then on into Good Friday until the liturgy.
At the Good Friday Liturgy, after the Veneration of the Cross - when we bow before the sign of our hope and salvation and kiss it - we receive the body and blood of the Crucified One and then the Sacrament is consumed. This mirrors the moment of Christ’s death, when nothing is left and all is desolate. The community disperses, just as the disciples fled from the scene: as Jesus prophesied at the Last Supper, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’ (Matthew 26.31). Liturgically we no longer have Christ present with us in the Blessed Sacrament.
Holy Saturday Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday, is one of the most unnoticed holy days of the Church. On Holy Saturday no Eucharist is celebrated; the Sacrament is not present. It is a day of absence. Sometimes referred to as Easter Eve or, erroneously Easter Saturday (that’s the Saturday after Easter not before) it is a day that usually sees lots of busy-ness of the quite reasonable preparation of the church for Easter Day. Yet we miss something if we do not pause. Holy Saturday echoes the seventh day of creation, the day on which God rested, seeing all was good. It is the source of the practice of Sabbath, which our Jewish brethren do far better than we.
Hoy Saturday is the day that Christ’s lifeless body rested in the tomb. It is a day of absence, stillness and calm.
I don’t believe it is too far-fetched to say that at the moment we are in an enforced Sabbath, an enforced and prolonged Holy Saturday. That is not to wish coronavirus upon anyone, but as it is a reality that has closed our churches, driven to our homes and made us isolated and cut off. In that reality how do we cope spiritually? Perhaps meditation on Holy Saturday and what it means gives us a key to reflecting on this time that we are in. Sabbath, solitude and silence can be frightening and unsettling, but can be a gift of grace to us as well. There is much to ponder on this and lots of wisdom from the great spiritual writers.
We don’t sabbath enough in our busy lives and world. Creation itself is receiving a sabbath as fewer planes and cars pump toxins into the atmosphere, as fish swim in the clear Venice canals, as the ozone layer begins to repair, as a tranquil silence descends next to busy roads. What of your Sabbath, how can you be refreshed in this time?
The Sabbath of Holy Saturday gave way to the life and abundance of Easter Day, and don’t we yearn for the Easter moment of release from our captivity. May that day soon come!
May God’s blessing rest upon you and your homes at this time.