Shepherd's Voice

Holy Week gives us the answer to questions posed by COVID-19

By ARCHBISHOP GEORGE J. LUCAS

Much has changed in our daily lives since we were signed with ashes at the beginning of Lent. Feb. 26, Ash Wednesday, seems like ages ago, and we have experienced this holy season like we never have before.

When we were thinking a few weeks ago about what we would give up for Lent, no one imagined that we would have to go without the public celebration of Mass in our parishes and fast from holy Communion. As we thought about how to grow in virtue, we could not have seen families spending so much time together, parents taking practical responsibility daily for the religious formation and education of their children, neighbors delivering food to the elderly and to hungry children home from school and heroic health care workers ready to put their lives on the line for all of us.

While it is true that, in God’s providence, we are finding daily blessings, there is an overwhelming sense of loss – loss of jobs and income, loss of human contact, loss of Mass and the sacraments – which can lead to a loss of hope. The celebration of Holy Week will be a particular blessing for us this year. In this time of loss and restrictions, we will recall what remains true in every age. As we experience a time of restriction and of unusual powerlessness, we turn to the power of God that is effective in human weakness.

During the coming week, from Palm Sunday to Easter, the liturgies of Holy Week will be celebrated in our churches and cathedrals. As we know, they must be celebrated without a congregation, out of care for our vulnerable neighbors. The priest will lead the most solemn prayers of the church, in the person of Jesus Christ, in praise of God, on behalf of the people. Parishioners are encouraged to mark these holy days at home. Parishes will provide resources for families to use for prayer and reflection.

In other words, Holy Week – the remembrance of the mystery of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus – is not being canceled this year. There are many reasons for us to mark this central mystery of our faith. Let me give you one reason why I think it is important that we do so.

I stopped in the supermarket a few days ago, and I was approached by two store employees who recognized me. One of them asked me a question – one that would cause an ache in the heart of any pastor. His question was: “What does it mean that we can’t go to Mass and receive Communion?” I started to answer what I thought he was asking, but it was clear I was missing the point. What he really wanted to know was: “Will God be mad at us for not doing what we are supposed to do?”

The man’s question was asked in the context of our current social restrictions due to COVID-19. But it is a question we have all at some time wrestled with. “Is God mad at me?” We might put it this way: “Is God punishing me?” Or, even worse: “Do I have any value in God’s sight at all?”

It is essential that we get the answer to these questions right. If we get it wrong, we will live in fear, not freedom. We will never have a lively faith nor know the joy of being a disciple and friend of Jesus Christ. Holy Week gives us the answer. As we accompany Jesus these days, we see the truth more clearly, the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.

When God looks on us sinners, he sees his dear daughters and sons. Original sin and our personal sins have caused a separation between us and God. We are incapable of healing the separation from our end. Because God seems far away, we are left to wonder whether God is mad at us or competing with us for our good. There can be no eternal life for us if we remain separated from God.

However, God is not satisfied with the separation, throughout salvation history and now in our lives. He loves us so powerfully that he sends his Son Jesus as our Savior. Jesus has come not to punish us or force us into submission. God loves humanity – you and me – so much that the Son of God takes on our human nature. While he does not sin himself, Jesus willingly submits to a painful and humiliating death, the stark effect of human sin.

In saying that Jesus does not sin, we mean much more. Jesus loves us perfectly, and he loves his Father perfectly. This perfect, sacrificial love, so visible on the cross, has broken the hold of sin and death on us and reconciled us to God. The love that flows from the cross of Christ is God’s response to our sin. This is a gift of grace and mercy that we do not deserve and could never earn. The gift is not forced on us. The only proper response is to freely love and serve God in return.

Archbishop George J. Lucas blesses the congregation with holy water at the Easter Vigil two years ago at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha. He is assisted by Deacon Jim Tardy. Due to current coronavirus restrictions, this year’s Holy Week celebrations will take place without the benefit of congregations. However, they will be livestreamed on the archdiocese’s website, www.archomaha.org and Facebook page, facebook.com/archomaha. See Archbishop Lucas’ schedule on this page for details. BOB ERVIN

On Easter, we celebrate one of the most important things that we know: Jesus is alive. We see the love of God for us in the crucifixion of Jesus; we see God’s power to break the hold of sin and death in the Lord’s resurrection. No one who reflects on the cross of Christ can deny the evil of human willfulness and sin. At Easter, we celebrate the power of God who breaks the hold of sin in this life and for eternity.

At the Last Supper, Jesus provided a way for those who are baptized into his death and resurrection to experience the power of that mystery all through our lives. In the Eucharist, we are drawn into the perfect sacrifice of Calvary, and the risen Jesus becomes present through the power of the Holy Spirit. We receive the Lord as our spiritual food and drink. This is how close God wants to be to us, who are never worthy of so great a gift.

I pray that we will participate in Holy Week and Easter in this unusual year with renewed confidence in God’s mercy and power, expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. These holy days are also marked with a longing to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice. I know you join me in praying that we experience the mercy and power of God in our time, ending the scourge of the pandemic and bringing us back rejoicing and soon into our parish churches for Mass.