"The greater anxiety is about how we can all recover from the consequences of this pandemic."
Before calendars become readily available, that is with the invention of the printing press, the traditional manner for the reckoning of the dates and seasons were based on the sacred feasts. In fact, on the feast of the Epiphany, it was customary for the priest (still is in many parishes) to ascend to the pulpit to announce the date of Easter in advance, and based on it, the other moveable feasts of the liturgical year. Aside from its practical value, the announcement of Easter was a reminder of the centrality of the yearly celebration of the passion and resurrection of the Lord as the summit of the entire liturgical year.
Easter, which falls on April 12 this year, is considered the most important feast in Christianity, so important that the faithful are required to prepare for it with forty days of fasting, prayer and penance, that is the season of Lent, and that its celebration—the feasting is extended to the next 50 days, that is until Pentecost.
Sadly, it would not be Easter as usual—at least this year—with the accelerating threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a massive move to contain the further spread of the disease, several countries, including the Philippines, have imposed stringent restrictions especially in the movement of people, ranging from lockdowns to community quarantines. Public gatherings have been banned. Public modes of transportation have been suspended. Business establishments have been closed.
With the enhanced community quarantine in effect until April 15, majority of the dioceses in the Philippines have already suspended public liturgical celebration for the remaining days of the Lenten season, including the penultimate days of the Holy Week. Last week, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and even the Vatican have already announced that while the long standing Holy Week liturgies will continue, they will celebrated “sine populo,” that is without the participation of the faithful in the parishes. I am certain that these drastic decisions by the Church were not taken lightly, but it only shows that Catholics, like the rest of the world, understand fully the serious consequences of this global pandemic.
It must be stressed, however, that the Church has not suspended the celebration of the mass. In fact, in many parishes and churches, priests continue to celebrate the mass, albeit in private. Thanks to the blessings of technology, livestreaming or live simulcast of these liturgies have allowed the faithful to participate in prayer from the safety of their homes.
Growing up with this annual rhythm of fasts and feasts, at first, it was unthinkable to miss Easter this year. But this present crisis provides an opportune moment to enter even more fully to the interior meaning of the Paschal mystery—that is the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. For many Catholic families, the grave illness or death of a loved one has caused great suffering. Having been isolated from their means of livelihood, many of the poor and disadvantaged are now facing economic difficulties. Even the emptiness in the streets reflect closely the fright and anxiety that silently pervade our homes and communities.
In the midst of the season of Lent, these uncertain and trying times have closely resembled the experience of Christ walking to Calvary. Detached from our everyday work and concerns, we are given this opportunity to spend more time with our family. With our churches closed and empty, we have the chance for our family to come together and pray more at home. Without the traditional pageantry of the Holy Week processions and other traditional observances, we can now open our eyes on the inner meaning of the these holy days, including an openness to a deeper observance of charity, especially by extending help to those most affected this crisis.
One of the most touching Easter encounter stories, for me, is that of the disciples of Emmaus. The two disciples were escaping from Jerusalem, perhaps frustrated or distressed by the pain of being separated from Christ. Then unknowingly, they meet Jesus along the way, who reminded them of the saving value of his passion and death. Then at the end of the day, the disciples invited him with a please, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” (Luke 24:29) So Jesus stayed for the night, and during supper, he broke the bread—and instantly the disciples recognized him.
The greater anxiety, it seems, is about how we can all recover from the consequences of this pandemic. Like the disciples of Emmaus, we have experienced distress from the pain and difficulties of these trying times. Clearly, this year’s Holy Week teaches us in a very relatable manner, that amidst the fleeting ways of the world, things such as faith, family and friendship will always retain their lasting value.
These days, we fast—not from food alone—but from the hectic “busy-ness” of our everyday lives that have detached us from our family and faith. We are invited to feast by demonstrating in a unique but concrete way the love and generosity of Christ, not only to our family and friends but most importantly to the least in our society.
As we embrace this tragedy happening around us, as Christians, we must confidently move forward in faith. As the somber days of Holy Week will give way to the joy of Easter—this too will pass. We take comfort in faith that walking with the suffering Christ does not end in Calvary, but culminates in the healing glory of his resurrection.
“At one and the same time, Christ has taught man to do good by his suffering and to do good to those who suffer. In this double aspect he has completely revealed the meaning of suffering.”—Saint Pope John Paul II