Holy Week events speak to our pandemic suffering
March 26, 2021
Holy Week – a time to prayerfully reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus in his sacrifice of love for the salvation of the world.
This year, as the world appears to be slowly emerging from long months of the pandemic, people can reflect on their experiences and learn important lessons about sacrifice, service and the depth of God’s love for humankind.
Two priests of the archdiocese and the founder of a Bible study ministry shared with the Catholic Voice their reflections on Lent and Holy Week amid the continuing pandemic, and how the events of Holy Week, recorded in Scripture, can speak to us in a special way in view of our current circumstances.
“I’m realizing just how fitting (our Lenten sacrifice) and the liturgical activity of Holy Week is to our global experience in the last year,” said Father Taylor Leffler, associate pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha.
“I learned that the word ‘quarantine’ comes from the (Medieval Latin) word ‘quarantena’,” he said, “meaning 40 days,” pointing to the length of time ships from plague-ridden areas were confined to ports to slow the spread of the Black Plague of Europe in the Middle Ages.
He draws a correlation with other examples of isolation – Moses’ 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai, Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, and the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert.
“How fitting to celebrate Lent in the midst of this reality of quarantine,” he said. “Thanks be to God it’s a little different for most of us this year.”
Unlike last year, when Catholics in the archdiocese experienced a collective sense of loss as the pandemic forced cancellation of in-person attendance at Holy Week liturgies, this year, most can look forward with hope to commemorating Holy Week together again in their churches, but with COVID precautions generally still in place.
As the Church celebrates Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, Father Leffler encourages gratitude for the gift of the Eucharist and the priesthood.
He recalls the resumption of public Masses after last spring’s total shutdown.
“People were just in tears because they’d been away from the Eucharist for so long, unable to worship at the altar, unable to even see their priests in person.”
“I’ve never seen those kinds of tears at the sight of the Eucharist and at the reception of the Eucharist,” he said. “So, how fitting on Holy Thursday to turn our attention again to the great gift of the Eucharist, and to remember what it was like to go so many weeks and even months without it.”
Also, on Holy Thursday, Jesus gave his disciples an example of service to others as he stooped to wash the feet of his disciples on Holy Thursday.
“Jesus, the master, takes on a gesture of humility and service,” said Father Harold Buse, pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Bellevue.
“Here, Jesus becomes a model for all of us. No matter our role or status, we are called to imitate this gesture of service” by humbly serving in our families, in our workplace, in the community, he said. “There is no one too lowly to deserve our service.”
Sharon Doran, Scripture scholar and founder of Seeking Truth, a Bible study and faith formation ministry in Omaha, compares Jesus’ act of service to the sacrament of reconciliation.
After Peter protests that Jesus should not wash his feet but then relents and suggests Jesus wash his hands and head as well, Jesus says: “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet.”
Then, Doran said, Jesus’ next statement was very curious: “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.”
“The bath they had (represents) baptism, and once baptized, that sacrament is never needed again,” Doran said. “But we still sin after baptism, so we would need a sacrament of regular ‘foot washing,’ or the sacrament of reconciliation.”
As the pandemic has made receiving reconciliation more difficult, Doran said she was grateful for the efforts parishes made to make the sacrament available, such as with drive-thru confessions.
“The scarcity of the sacrament during COVID has made me appreciate it even more and to be ever so grateful for the priests that still were ‘washing feet’ and the volunteers assisting to make it a reality.”
As Jesus concluded his act of service and the Last Supper is completed, the story moves to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus agonizes over his imminent suffering and death.
“As God, Jesus foresees the great suffering coming his way. As man, Jesus dreads the pain that lies ahead,” Father Buse said. “As God, Jesus knows the need for the salvation of humanity. As man, he asks his Father to spare him of the impending suffering.”
“The Gospel gives us the privilege of entering Jesus’ agony and struggle,” he said. “This was a suffering as real as the crucifixion itself.”
“Looking up the word ‘agony’ in the dictionary, it says extreme physical or mental suffering,” Doran said.
Jesus experienced excruciating mental suffering, enough to cause hematidrosis, the rare condition of sweating blood, and asked his Father if the cup of suffering could pass him by – yet not his own will, but the Father’s will be done, she said.
“How many times did we ask the Lord when the cup of COVID could be over? (But) the Father allowed Jesus to agonize in the garden,” Doran said. “He also allowed us to agonize during COVID.”
“We must conform our wills to the will of the Father – not my will but yours be done,” she said.
As Jesus accepted his cross on Good Friday, we are encouraged to bear, and even reverence the cross the world has experienced during COVID-19, Father Leffler said.
“That seems counterintuitive, because we’ve all been through the cross of this pandemic, and we hate it,” he said. “We want to just throw the cross away, or forget about it, or put the cross in the closet. But on Good Friday we reverence the cross.”
He said the world would be a better place if people could show reverence for this global experience of suffering and the lives lost during the pandemic, “to just embrace the cross and believe that this is not the end of the story.”
“When Jesus permits us to suffer, the invitation is that we not suffer alone, that we not isolate ourselves from him.” Whatever suffering people are bringing into this Holy Week can be joined with Jesus’ suffering, Father Leffler said.
“That’s the promise the cross gives us,” he said. “It’s meant to hang in the center of every Catholic church across the planet, so that as soon as we walk in, we see the God-man who chose to suffer for us, and therefore chose to suffer with us.”