It’s an understatement to describe this year’s Lent as penitential. A pandemic is oppressive — it shuts us indoors even before the authorities try to do so. It mortifies our desires to do as we wish, to be as leisurely as we like to be. And it exposes our dependence on one another. Who hasn’t felt a surge of admiration not just for nurses but for the people restocking store shelves with soup cans? This is a time when a great many well-paid people make the humiliating discovery that they are “not essential workers.” It’s also a time of misery, when millions are suddenly unemployed through no fault of their own, or of their employers’.
I’m now losing count of the weeks I have “missed Mass” because it is not open to the public. And this situation is in tune with the mediocrity of my practice of the faith at this point in my life. But the suddenly free Sundays have denied me something I wish I had, which is the comfort of company. Not just among the other sinners at my parish, but with the characters in the Holy Week narratives.
Christianity preserves the essential human mediocrity of its heroes, particularly the twelve apostles. Judas betrays Christ for a bit of coin. Peter denies him three times, even after swearing he would die for his friend and being prophetically warned. Nine other Apostles skedaddle as the awful events come to their fulfillment on Good Friday. Only the young Apostle John stays around. The young are always zealous. As if to emphasize the divine irony, all these failures and betrayals happen within hours of the Last Supper, the moment at which we celebrate Christ’s ordination of the apostles as his priests.
By the end of it all, Christ dies for our sins, and later institutes the practice of confession. Most people who end up leaving the faith in their youth complain about the guilt the Christian religion imposed on them. But I find the opposite to be the case. Once you go through the Ten Commandments, and all they imply, the list of sins is rather long. But it’s much shorter than the number of reasons we tend to condemn ourselves.
For instance, it’s not a sin that I haven’t learned French yet. That seems obvious, even trivial. But I find I beat myself up over lots of things that don’t really require repentance. And I’m sure I’m not alone. It’s not a sin to feel too tired after putting my children to sleep to take on some great edifying hobby. It’s not a sin that I don’t have a perfect morning routine for productivity before my children wake up. It’s not a sin to find yourself boring. It’s not a sin that I haven’t achieved everything I wanted to in life. It’s not a sin to be distracted, or sick, or just to displease yourself in some ineffable way. It’s just human.
And it’s not a sin to find this season of lockdown miserably lonely, even when surrounded by loved ones. My own family is missing birthday celebrations, and a planned Easter get-together. I’m really sore that an old friend and I who had been trying to find a day to get together since just before Thanksgiving now find our two-man reunion put off indefinitely.
We are made for being together with our friends and family, over a big meal. A priest friend shared with me these reflections from Cardinal Henry Newman on the transition from Holy Thursday to Good Friday. They are part of his own reflections about celebrating the mysteries of faith in nearly empty churches.
You may say, indeed, that most important occurrences took place at that feast; and that these He had in view when He gave the command to prepare for it, and when He expressed His satisfaction in celebrating it. Then He washed His disciples’ feet, and gave the precept of humility; then He laid down the great note of the Church, brotherly love, impressing it on them most persuasively by His own example; and then He instituted His own heavenly Sacrament, which was to remain on earth, together with that humility and love, unto the end. It is true; but still it is true also, that He chose a festive occasion as the season for these solemn and gracious acts. He closed His earthly ministry, He parted with His disciples, He entered upon His trial, at a feast. The Son of Man had come, in His own words, eating and drinking; and He preserved this peculiarity of His mission unto the end.
There must be something natural, I mean something in accordance with deep principles in our nature, in this action of our Lord’s, considering how widely similar observances have prevailed, how congenial they are to us, and that He who thus acted had taken upon Him human nature in its perfection. God has given us “wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make him a cheerful countenance, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.” [Ps. civ. 15.] And these good gifts of His, by which our life is strengthened, send the soul forth out of itself in search of sympathy and fellowship; they end not in themselves, nor can be enjoyed in solitude; they create, and convey, and blend with social feelings; they are means and tokens of mutual good-will and kindness; or, to speak more religiously, they are of a sacramental nature. They are intended, by being partaken in common, to open our hearts towards each other in love; and this being the case, we may judge how fearful is the abuse of God’s gifts in riot or sensuality, for it is in some sort a profanation of a Divine ordinance, a sacrilege. When then our Lord parted from His disciples in a feast, He took the most tender, affectionate, loving leave of them which could be taken.
As this trial becomes a long Lent, it is time to find a way to feast in the midst of it. To remind ourselves what it is to be human again. And why we are all praying for deliverance.