The coronavirus pandemic has deprived Catholics the world over of much of their Lenten liturgical life. During Holy Week that deprivation will be felt all the more acutely, as priests prepare to celebrate the most sacred days of the year in empty churches.
Holy Week during the pandemic will carry a perennial liturgical dynamic to excess. Obviously the liturgy never strips itself away from those who would participate in it, as is happening for lay Catholics now. But there is in Lent, culminating in Holy Week, a liturgical stripping away, a sort of liturgical dying.
As Lent proceeds, many liturgical actions and symbols are set aside. Indeed, after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper there is a formal stripping of the altar, leaving it bare for the commemoration of the Lord’s passion.
That stripping away begins on Ash Wednesday, when the liturgy abandons the “Alleluia” before the Gospel. Even on the solemn feasts of Lent – St. Joseph and the Annunciation – it does not return. The Church’s exultant cry of joy – Alleluia! – is set aside until it returns with the solemn triplex Alleluia of the Easter Vigil. The Easter Alleluia, intoned thrice by the bishop, expresses the ineffable joy of Easter, made “effable” only in that unique and undefinable term.
So great is the return of the Alleluia that the deacon proclaims it with familiar words from the angels at Bethlehem – and the announcement of a new pope: Reverendissime Pater, annuntio vobis gaudium magnum, quod est alleluia – Most Reverend Father, I announce to you a great joy, that is alleluia!
The song of the angels at Bethlehem – the Gloria – is also silenced during Lent, returning only on Holy Thursday.
In terms of liturgical music, the chants and antiphons of Lent are rich and varied. Perhaps the most beautiful is Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51, Miserere. It was composed for the Tenebrae services of Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel.
It is sung without accompaniment, a nod toward the liturgical tradition that Lenten music is more restrained. The organ is not played except to accompany singers in Lent. No organ voluntaries in Lent, though some places make an exception for Laetare Sunday.
The deprivation of the ears is matched by the other senses. Flowers do not adorn the sanctuary during Lent by custom, and in some places even the use of incense may be reduced.
During Passiontide – the fifth week of Lent and Holy Week – there is a venerable tradition of veiling sacred images in the church. As we get closer to Good Friday, all adornment diminishes. Even our favourite statues and devotional images are taken away from us.
The Sacred Triduum makes the stripping away most dramatic. The holy water fonts are empty. The tabernacle is empty. After the Holy Thursday stripping of the altar, crosses are removed from the church. The bells rung during the Gloria on Holy Thursday then fall silent, not to be used again until the Easter Vigil.
Entering the church on Good Friday is a stark experience. So much that is familiar is gone. All is bare.
After Good Friday, a great silence descends upon the church which extends to Holy Saturday, the day of the tomb, the day of silence. The dead Christ is commemorated by a “dead Church”, a Church which does not celebrate the sacraments on Holy Saturday, for the sacraments make Christ present, and Christ is in the tomb. On Good Friday there is no Mass, just the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion. On Holy Saturday, there is not even that. No sacraments. Nothing – until Easter begins with the great Vigil.
Finally, on the evening of Holy Saturday, even the light is taken away. We gather in darkness, as if to remember the darkness of the tomb, or the more ancient darkness before God said in the beginning, let there be light.
At the Vigil of Easter, it all comes back – the light, the music, the flowers, the images, the holy water, the Alleluia, the sacraments.
During this pandemic Holy Week, we might spiritually profit by extending that liturgical dynamic of stripping away and coming back to our experience of living without the Holy Mass, without the usual access to the sacraments. It is clearly not an ideal. We do not know how long this pandemic season will last. We do not know when everything will be restored.
Living this unusual season though may help us in future Lents, in future Holy Weeks. We will know more deeply in reality that the symbolic stripping away only points toward a glorious return.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca