“Zion is wasted and made low; Jerusalem, desolate and void.”
--From “Bow Thine Ear, O Lord,” translation of “Civitas Sancti Tui” by William Byrd
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, one of the annual highlights was participating in the liturgies of Holy Week as a member of the Liturgical Choir. During my time as a student, the choir was directed by the late Dr. Gail Walton (d. 2010), who masterfully combined musical perfectionism and loving mentorship of students. Within Holy Week, our first major task as a choir was a version of Tenebrae, the medieval service of darkness and light in which candles are slowly extinguished symbolizing the flight of the apostles.
One year, we sang for this service “Bow Thine Ear, O Lord,” a motet by the Tudor composer William Byrd that he wrote to evoke parallels between the plight of Catholics in England and the plight of the Jews during the Babylonian Exile. During one rehearsal of this piece, Gail became concerned about the gap in passion from the choir between this piece and another work, Louis Vierne’s thundering “Kyrie” from his Messe Solennelle, that we were going to sing for Tenebrae. She implored us to put the same passion into singing Byrd’s quiet lament as we did for Vierne’s “big” plea for mercy. Even a decade and a half later, this advice has stuck with me, and I think it is instructive for our present moment.
We enter the Triduum this year feeling spiritually and physically “desolate and void,” as Byrd’s motet would have it. Whereas usually Lent, particularly with the readings from Year A of the Lectionary cycle, picks up in intensity week by week culminating in the Fifth Sunday with the Raising of Lazarus, for many of us, this year’s Lent has had an entirely different kind of intensity—one that has not let up since just after the Second Sunday. This year, the Transfiguration Gospel and Peter’s exclamation that “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” take on ironic resonance, as we have been—for good reason—unable to attend church services since that time. Desolation and void have been our spiritual lot and are likely to be for a good part of the Easter season at least. It has felt, to borrow the title of a British film from the 1970s, like a long Good Friday.
How then to respond? Some in the Church have foolishly called for reopening public Masses on the grounds that the spiritual health and wellbeing of the faithful are more important than protection from disease. This attitude exhibits a kind of fideism, a rejection of the basic Catholic principle that we emphasize in our Catholic intellectual tradition seminars at Sacred Heart: faith and reason are compatible. Firm faith and hope in God do not justify reckless behavior with our earthly bodies, our “one wild and precious life” in Mary Oliver’s words, that is the prelude to resurrection life yet that has its own dignity and value worth preserving.
We must also avoid the temptation toward individualism during the Triduum, even aa—and precisely because—many are, in fact, alone. “Me and Jesus” spirituality is neither healthy for the individual nor authentic to Christian identity in community. Whether we are participating in livestreamed services (there are good arguments for and against this) or developing our own home rituals, we must do so in a way that goes beyond the closed-in mentality that Pope Francis so often laments in the church and that extends beyond the hierarchy to many of the laity. The mandatum of Holy Thursday this year will not be reenacted in the washing of the feet in churches around the world (or in a prison by Pope Francis), but this does not exempt us from its call; rather, it reinforces the idea that service must be part and parcel of our Christian lives. If we are not on the front lines of this fight as a health-care professional, grocery store worker or delivery driver, we must support them in whatever way we can, both in mundane ways, such as tipping generously, and deeper ways such as fighting for just wages and benefits for them. We cannot venerate the cross this year on Good Friday, but we can venerate what Ignacio Ellacuría called the “crucified people” in our community around the world who suffer and die as many still live comfortably amidst the pandemic. We cannot share the light of the Paschal Candle, but we can, in the words of Michael Forster’s Advent poem, “Kindle a light to lighten the darkness” because “God in the poor is coming” to meet us, judge us, heal us and free us. What will our Easter offering for them be?
To return, then, to the wisdom of my late, great choir director Gail Walton: there is a danger that we will count the Triduum and Easter this year as less meaningful due to the quiet desolation we understandably feel. This would be to make the same mistake my choir did—to mistake fullness and gratification for meaning. Viktor Frankl wrote and spoke at length about finding meaning under the most difficult circumstances, and we would do well to learn from him that our feeling of emptiness offers a surplus rather than a deficit of meaning, and to act accordingly. In the words of tonight’s Introit, let us glory in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which is salvation, life and resurrection: through which we are saved and freed. Let us use that freedom wisely and justly.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.