TYLER, Texas (KETK) – In the week leading up to the most important Christian holy day of the year, when they celebrate the empty tomb and Christ’s resurrection, churches normally packed with the faithful are now just as empty.
Holy Week began Sunday with Palm Sunday, the day the commemorates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, where he would be crucified only days later.
Palm Sunday liturgies are usually big, lavish, jubilant celebrations, replete with palm branches and congregations acting as the crowd on that day so long ago.
This year, though, COVID-19 has silenced those crowds and turned churches into quiet, empty spaces, more often than not the backdrop for a livestreamed or televised service with precious people on the altar, and those all spaced the requisite 6 feet apart.
Good Friday, the day that marks the day Christ died, is traditionally the one day of the year when churches go dark, when no Catholic Mass is celebrated, when the religious world stops, bows its head, and waits for the light to return.
The world has been living Good Friday for months now, waiting desperately for a light that seems achingly slow to appear.
And yet, faith being what it is, while the celebrations are muted and the celebrants few and literally far between, still they persist.
Pope Francis, leader of the world’s Catholic Christians, celebrated Palm Sunday as usual in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
Nothing else was “as usual,” though. Where once a train of priests, deacons, and acolytes would have accompanied his procession through the packed sanctuary of the mammoth church, this time the pope was accompanied only by a handful of others. And while the sheer scale of St. Peter’s is always evident, no matter how large the crowd that fills it, on this day the basilica appeared more cavernous than ever, with but a few nuns and other worshipers scattered here and there, separated by palm branches, looking small and isolated in that impossibly vast space.
Here in the U.S., Cardinal Timothy Dolan celebrated Palm Sunday in the American church’s own cavernous space, St. Patrick Cathedral in New York.
New York City, suffering terribly just now under a Good Friday that seems interminable, surely deserved more. But in the age of COVID-19, even faith and worship must respect social distancing and attempts to “flatten the curve.”
In Tyler, seat of the hard hit Smith County here in East Texas, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is by no means “cavernous,” but still seemed larger than usual as Bishop Joseph E. Strickland celebrated a Palm Sunday Mass before rows of empty pews.
The diocese recorded the liturgy and posted it on YouTube.
In his homily, Strickland addressed the dashed hopes of faithful in Tyler, and no doubt around the world.
“I know that many of you were hoping against hope that you would be able to receive the body and blood of our Lord on this Palm Sunday or at least on Easter Sunday,” he said. “As your spiritual father, I looked up and down, sideways and backwards, trying to find a way. And I failed. I simply couldn’t find a way for you to receive with great reverence and love your lord and savior in the Eucharist and still maintain that social distancing that from what we’re hearing is more and more necessary.”
In an arresting confluence of liturgy and life, the Palm Sunday ritual includes a reading from Psalm 22, with the familiar lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Strickland seized upon those words as a cry for the present day.
“In this darkness of this mysterious and novel coronavirus,,” he said, “that cry has come from our hearts.”
Everyone, he said, has felt abandoned by God in various ways, “however old we are or in whatever journey of our lives.
“But today, with the world as it is, it is a cry from the heart of the people of the world. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ And we hear our Lord Jesus use those words as he dies on the cross.”
But he urged people not to give in to that sense of abandonment, not to surrender to the darkness of COVID-19 but to “glean the precious moments of goodness in the darkness that we’re all facing.
“Let us be aware of those tiny moments of hope and joy woven into this darkness. Because as we celebrate this Passion of the Lord, this Palm Sunday, those are the realities that should be in our hearts. Let us be aware, let us treasure, let us hold close in our hearts these gifts of light in the midst of darkness.”