From the beginning of my service as Bishop of a diocese, it seemed that every year as the celebrations of Christmas and Easter approached, there would be a profoundly sad event in the diocese or difficult crisis to face for the good of the diocese. Just as I was anticipating with joy the celebrations of the great mysteries of our salvation, something would happen, which, from a human point of view, put a dark cloud over the celebrations and called into question the joy they inspired. Once, when I commented to a brother Bishop about this distressingly too regular experience, he simply responded: “It is Satan, trying to steal your joy.”
It makes sense that Satan whom Our Lord describes as “a murderer from the beginning, … a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8, 44) wants to hide from our eyes the great realities of the Incarnation and Redemption, wants to distract us from the liturgical rites through which we not only celebrate those truths but receive the immeasurable and unceasing graces they have won for us. Satan wants to convince us that loss and death, and the sadness and fear which naturally accompany them show Christ to be false, falsify His Redemptive Incarnation, and show our faith and the joy it naturally inspires to be a lie.
But it is Satan who is false. He is the liar. Christ, God the Son, indeed has become man, He has suffered the cruelest Passion and Death, in order to redeem our human nature, to restore to us true life, the divine life which overcomes the worst sufferings and even death itself, and brings us surely and safely to our true destiny: eternal life with Him.
Saint Paul, in the face of so many profoundly discouraging trials throughout the course of his Apostolic ministry, culminating in his martyrdom at Rome, wrote to the Christians at Colossae: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1, 24). For him, as it should be for us, to suffer with Christ for the Church, for the love of God and our neighbor, is the unassailable and unfailing source of our joy. It is the highest expression of our communion with Christ, God the Son Incarnate, sharing with Him in the mystery of the divine love of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The life of Christ, the grace of the Holy Spirit poured forth from Christ’s Heart to dwell within our hearts, inspires and strengthens us to embrace loss and death with His love which conquers them and transforms them into eternal gain and life without end. Our joy, then, is not some superficial pleasure or emotion but the fruit of love which is “strong as death,” which “many waters cannot quench … neither can floods drown it” (Sg 8, 6-7).
Our joy does not take away the sharp sting of loss and death but, with confidence and courage, faces them as part of the lifelong combat of love which we are called to wage during this life – after all we are, by God’s grace, true soldiers of Christ (2 Tm 2, 3) – in the sure knowledge of the victory of eternal life. Thus, at the end of his life, Saint Paul could write to his spiritual son and fellow shepherd of the flock, Saint Timothy:
For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Tm 4, 6-8).
We love Our Lord, we love the Redemptive Incarnation by which He is alive for us in Church, and thus we are joyful in fighting the good fight with Him, in staying the course, no matter what trials we face, and in keeping the faith, when the Father of Lies tempts us to doubt Christ and even to deny Him.
Satan has perhaps never had a better tool than the coronavirus for stealing our joy in celebrating the holiest days of the year, the days during which Christ won for us eternal life. How he would like to take the holiness from the one week of the year, which is known simply as Holy Week! The current international health crisis caused by the coronavirus COVID-19 continues to reap a tragic harvest of loss and death, engendering profound sadness and fear in the human heart. Certainly, Satan is using the suffering which has beset so many homes, neighborhoods, cities and nations, to tempt us to doubt Our Lord and the Faith, Hope and Love which are His great gifts to us for our daily living. The effect of Satan’s murderous intent and his lies is made all the greater when we are far from the Lord, when we have taken His life within us for granted, when we have even abandoned Him as we pursue passing worldly pleasures, conveniences or successes.
In the Church herself, we have witnessed a failure to teach first Christ as Lord. How many today are suffering profoundly from a useless fear because they have forgotten or even rejected the Kingship of the Heart of Jesus in their hearts and homes. Remember the words of Our Lord to Jairus who sought His help for his dying daughter: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5, 36). How many today are without hope because they think that the victory over the evil of the coronavirus COVID-19 depends totally on us, because they have forgotten that, while we must do all that we can humanly do to fight a great evil, God alone can bless our efforts and give us the victory over loss and death. It is so sad to read documents – even documents of the Church – which purport to address the most important difficulties which we face and to find in them no acknowledgment of the Lordship of Christ, of the truth that we depend completely upon God for our being, for all that we are and all that we have, and that, therefore, prayer and worship are our first and most important means of combating any evil.
Some days ago, a young adult Catholic said to me, as if it were a matter of logical fact, that he would not be celebrating Easter this year because of the coronavirus. If the joy of our Easter celebration were simply a matter of good feelings, then I understand his sentiment. But the joy of Easter is rooted in eternal truth, the victory of Christ over what clearly looked like his annihilation, the victory won in His human nature for the sake of the same victory in our human nature, no matter what hardships we may be suffering. If we believe in Christ, if we trust in His promises, then we must celebrate with joy His great work of the Redemption. To celebrate the mysteries of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection is not to lack respect for the suffering of so many during the present time but to recognize that Christ is with us to overcome our sufferings with His love. Our celebration is a beacon of hope for those whose lives are severely tried and invites them to place their trust in Our Lord.
Yes, Holy Week this year is so different for us. The suffering associated with the coronavirus has even led to a situation in which many Catholics, during Holy Week, do not have access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist which are our extraordinary, yet also ordinary, encounters with the Risen Lord, in order that He may renew and strengthen us in His life. But it remains the holiest week of the year, for it commemorates the events by which we are alive in Christ, by which eternal life is ours, even in the face of a pandemic, a worldwide health crisis. I urge you, therefore, not to give way to the lie of Satan who would convince you that, this year, you have nothing to celebrate during Holy Week. No, you have everything to celebrate, for Christ has gone before us in every suffering and now accompanies us in our sufferings, so that we remain strong in His love, the love which conquers every evil.
Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, when Christ entered into Jerusalem with the full knowledge of the Passion and Death which awaited Him. He knew how ephemeral was the welcome which He had received, a just welcome for the King of Heaven and Earth, but superficial because those who extended it had only a worldly understanding of the salvation which He came to win for us. They were not ready to be one with Christ in the establishment of His eternal Kingdom through the events of His Passion and Death. After Palm Sunday, each day of Holy Week is rightly called holy because it is part of Christ’s steadfast embrace of His saving mission at its culmination.
Take time today to reflect on the true royal welcome which you have extended to Christ in your heart and in your home. Read again the account of His entrance into Jerusalem and of how, after His triumphant entry, he wept over Jerusalem with the words:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (Mt 23, 37).
If you or your home are far from Our Lord, remember how He desires to be close to you, to be the constant guest of your heart and home.
Remain with Christ throughout Holy Week. In a particular way, make Holy Thursday a day of profound thanksgiving for the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Priesthood, which Our Lord instituted at the Last Supper. Make Good Friday a quiet day during which you undertake penitential practices, in order to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Suffering and Dying. On Good Friday, be filled with gratitude for the Sacraments of Penance and of the Anointing of the Sick. On Holy Saturday, keep vigil with Our Lord, praising and thanking Him for the gift of His grace in our souls through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit from His glorious pierced Heart. Ponder especially how His grace is within you through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist. During all of these days, reflect upon and thank God for the gift of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and its fruit, the family – the “domestic Church” or little Church of the home – , the first place in which we come to know God, to offer him prayer and worship, and to discipline our lives according to His Law.
If you are unable to participate in the liturgical rites for these holiest of days, which is indeed a great deprivation, for nothing can substitute for the encounter with Christ through the Sacraments during these days, strive in your homes to be at the Sacred Liturgy through your desire to be in the company of Our Lord, especially in the mystery of His saving work. Our Lord does not expect of us the impossible, but he expects that we do the best that we can to be with Him throughout these days of His powerful grace.
There are many wonderful helps for the nourishing of such holy desire. First of all, there is rich treasury of prayer in the Church, for example: the reading of the Holy Scriptures, for instance the Penitential Psalms, especially Psalm 51 , and the account of the Passion of Our Lord in the four Gospels, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, meditation upon the mysteries of our faith through the praying of the Holy Rosary, especially the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Litanies of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin (of Loreto), of Saint Joseph, and of the Saints, the Way of the Cross – which also can be made at home by using the images of the Fourteen Stations depicted in a prayer book or on a sacred object – , the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, visits to shrines, grottos and other places sacred to Our Lord and to the mysteries of the Redemptive Incarnation, and devotion to the saints who have been powerful to help us, especially Saint Roch, Patron against Pestilences.
In our time, too, we are blessed to have access, through the communications media, to the sacred rites and to public devotions as they are being celebrated in certain churches, especially in the churches of monasteries and convents in which the whole religious community is participating. Viewing a sacred rite which is broadcasted is certainly not the same as direct participation in it, but, if it is all that is possible for us, it is surely pleasing to Our Lord Who will never fail to shower us with His grace in response to our humble act of devotion and love.
In any case, Holy Week cannot be for us like any other week but must be marked by the deepest sentiments of faith in Christ Who alone is our salvation. The sentiments of faith during these holiest of days are, likewise, sentiments of deepest gratitude and love. If your gratitude and love cannot have their highest expression through participation in the Sacred Liturgy, let it find expression in the devotion of your hearts and homes. Commemorating, with Christ, His Blessed Mother and all the saints, the events of the Sacred Triduum, we contemplate the mystery of His life within each of us. For all, time spent, each day, in prayer and devotion, meditating upon the Passion of our Lord, will help us to be with our Lord during these holiest of days in the best manner possible at this time. How much the suffering of the present time should teach us about the incomparable gift of the Sacred Liturgy and the Sacraments!
In closing, I assure you that you and your intentions are in my prayers today and will remain in my prayers throughout Holy Week and especially during the Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. May we all keep company with Christ with deepest faith, hope and love, as we celebrate these holiest of days on which He suffered, died, and rose from the dead to free us from sin and from every evil, and to win for us eternal life. May our observance of Holy Week, this year, be our strong armament in the ongoing combat against the coronavirus COVID-19. In Christ, the victory will be ours. “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5, 36).
Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke
5 April 2020