The greatest and most powerful moment in the entire pontificate of Pope Francis turned not on footnotes or soundbites, but upon the dramatic presence of Christ Crucified. The Holy Father made his lonely pilgrimage, across a desolate world, to that miraculous crucifix once used in a previous plague. For once in this bewildering pandemic, the whole world turned its gaze towards the blazing fire of divine charity. The Cross stood steady while the whole world turned around it. Everyone stopped, and many remained, at the foot of the Cross – still at the mystery presented in the dark, rainy, silence of an empty square.
We speak about the Church as Christ’s body, human and divine – and we speak about the Holy Spirit as the soul of the Church, which is to say the fire of divine charity which forms the body, which heals, sanctifies, and nourishes, which gives living water to our created souls. This fire of divine charity is communicated to us through the sacraments. We do not believe they are “non-essential”, but rather that they are divine graces upon which our very salvation depends. How can we live without them?
The sacraments all turn upon the reality of this divine fire. We see this charity principally through the sacrifice of the Cross. On Good Friday, the whole universe stops to gaze upon Jesus Christ, who makes the supreme offering of love and worship upon the Cross.
Baptism is fixed to this reality. The mystery of the Mass is fixed to this reality. Holy Orders and the Sacrament of Matrimony are fixed by this reality of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. When the Lord bids a Christian to bear witness with his own blood, it is to this reality that the martyr is perfectly conformed. It is for this reason that the martyrs’ sacrifice is sometimes spoken about in Eucharistic terms – a sacramental offering made in the very body of the martyr.
As bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp was martyred by fire, tied to a post – one might say bereft of sacraments. But as his persecutors prepared to light the wood around him, he said to the world, “you threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”
So will our pandemic burn for a season, and after a little while it will be quenched. But Catholics must stand fast in the reality of that divine fire to which they are called to order their whole lives – regardless of their access to sacramental graces which are, after all, not absent but even presently work upon them. Baptism itself, as St Thomas Aquinas says, “sets something up in the soul.”
The Church has both an open, liturgical, communal form, and a secret, silent, contemplative form. Pope Francis gave us a glimpse of the latter in St. Peter’s Square. Christ was present in the silence, in the darkness, and we fell prostrate before the reality. For Catholics around the world, we enter into a great silence this Easter.
Cardinal Sarah once called this silence an “acoustic iconostasis”. In the stillness of a socially distant world, overshadowed by the coronavirus, can we not hear God? Sarah observes “without silence, God disappears in the noise. And this noise becomes all the more obsessive because God is absent. Unless the world rediscovers silence, it is lost. The earth then rushes into nothingness.” Now, with the Miraculous Crucifix fixed in our hearts, man must make a choice between silence and noise, between – as the cardinal has so famously put the question – “God or nothing.”
Catholics may be tempted by the noise. We might be lulled into obsessive fear, or we might rage against our quarantine. But it is Easter to which we have been called.
It is true that the Church’s open, liturgical, communal form has been locked up in many places. Thank God for those bishops who have done everything to shepherd their people, and who have not stolen away the last sacramental graces for the sick and the dying under bureaucratic veils. Thank God for courageous and holy parish priests who have brought the sacraments to the faithful through every nook and cranny of our collective house arrest.
Yet we must also find ways to turn off the senseless noise even as we are tied to the post. Catholics this Easter must enter the secret, silent, contemplative form of the Church’s life in the temple of our hearts. We must erect an interior altar there upon which to gaze upon Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. In the silence of our hearts, we must find the tomb empty, and we must gaze at the burial linens folded in mysterious repose.
We may not be able to plunge our hand into Christ’s sacramental side this Easter. Yet we can, like St Polycarp, or the disciples on the road to Emmaus, be consumed by the divine fire burning within us.