I have a confession to make.
Holy Week is one of the most – if not the absolute most – spiritual time of year for me.
I’m not the most traditionally religious person you know. By a long shot. I tend to be rather private about my religious beliefs. I believe what I believe, but it’s sacred to me, no pun intended. I don’t feel the need to advertise it.
But Holy Week, well, it’s something ethereal to me. It’s the time of year I feel closest to God, honestly.
Maybe it’s the story. Maybe it’s the intense ritual that surrounds Holy Week for Catholics, which if you do know about my religious beliefs, is literally one of my absolute favorite things about Catholicism. I love the routine, the ritual, the familiarity. It’s the same ritual I practiced as a child. It’s comforting to me. Maybe it’s the music – the music I began singing as a preteen in my hometown’s choir that grew into singing in the loft of the cathedral in Baton Rouge as my belovedly quirky high school choir director (who also was in charge of music at the Cathedral) led us into a rousing version of Handel’s Messiah.
Holy Thursday in particular is special to me because it’s one of two times a year many Catholics specifically pray for the dead. I remember as a young girl going to the church I grew up in on Holy Thursday with my mom. Mom, my grandmother and I sang together in that church’s choir for years. In the year plus since Mom passed, I’ve had a really hard time getting through Masses without crying. Of all languages, music is the one I prefer the most. One song, and I’m reduced to a puddle of tears, sprinting for the bathroom. Holy Week, then, is an emotional landmine.
Mom would always pray after services on Holy Thursday specifically for her grandmothers. She told me one year when I was about 9 or 10 they made her promise she’d pray for them every year on Holy Thursday after they passed. I’ve never forgotten it. It’s why I can never miss a Holy Thursday service. I have to pray for Mom and my great-grandmothers. If I don’t, who will?
If you haven’t been to a Holy Thursday service at a Catholic church, it’s about two hours long. Part re-enactment of the washing of the feet (my favorite Jesus lesson EVER being the social justice hippie I am), and part regular Mass. After Mass, the Eucharist is placed in a chapel where parishioners take turns keeping watch and praying. It is meant to be symbolic of staying up all night in the garden with Jesus. Some parishes still stay open all night, but most like mine stay open until midnight usually. You know, not when we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
Since Mom’s funeral last February, I’ve been carrying one of her rosaries around with me in my purse. She bought it when we visited the Basilica of the National Shrine the summer I interned in DC in college. I instantly recognized it on her nightstand when I went with my grandmother to Mom’s house after she passed to gather her things to prepare her body. The other rosary that was by her bed I used for her hands for the services. But this one, I’ve kept with me ever since. It never leaves my purse.
Last year, Holy Week came just weeks after her funeral, and I was struggling hard. I went to sit in the chapel after Mass, and I was overwhelmed. My parish makes it to where you almost feel like you’re actually in the garden where Jesus spent his last night on Earth before his crucifixion. They played Latin hymns softly, and it just sent me over the edge. Some of the same hymns Mom and I used to sing, I’m praying with her rosary, on Holy Thursday. It was a lot. I was trying to not draw attention to myself and thought I was doing a good job of quietly crying, but I guess I wasn’t because the older woman next to me noticed. She leaned over and whispered, “Are you OK?” I told her that I was sorry, my mom passed away a couple of months ago. She immediately hugged me and said, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry. She’ll always be with you. I know you must miss her, but think of how she will be spending Easter with Jesus this year.” She asked me if she could have my name so she could pray for me, and gave me some Kleenex, then another hug.
I don’t know why, but she gave me so much relief, this poor woman who must have been startled as to why the loon next to her had tears furiously rolling down her cheeks as she prayed the rosary.
I got back to my car though afterward and began sobbing loudly, even screaming at one point, for the first time since the immediate days after she died. I guess I had been trying to shield my family from my grief before that night. Maybe, if I’m being honest, I was trying to shield myself too.
Because last year’s Holy Week was so overwhelming to me, I was really looking forward to this year. But then, COVID-19. A few weeks ago, my church held their first virtual Mass, and I started crying again at verbalizing my disbelief that this is how we’d be celebrating Easter this year. For someone who has never been much of a crier, apparently everything makes me cry now, but I digress.
So as you can imagine, I was bummed to not be going to church tonight. I understood why, and I supported why. But it just felt a little broken to me.
But then, during the homily as I watched online, my priest said the most beautiful thing that sent shivers down my spine: “Even though we are not together physically, we are still in communion with one another…we are to live our baptismal call to love our neighbor and to love God.” He talked about how we are called to do what we can to mitigate this virus for our neighbors, for our healthcare workers and for our loved ones. That really stuck with me, as I’ve been struggling the last few weeks, reliving what I saw my mom go through as she died from the flu and knowing it is a similar, but even worse, hell to what these poor people with COVID-19 are going through. Hearing that interpretation – that it’s not just our civic duty, but our calling as Christians to not weep over the inconvenience of not physically celebrating Holy Week in church but to view it as a manifestation of our baptismal call…just wow. It was the validation I was looking for.
So tonight, I will say my rosary at home rather than in the garden-like chapel. But I will say the same prayers that my mom said, that my grandmother taught her, that her mother taught her. I will pray for my mom’s soul, and that of my great-grandmothers. But I will also pray for the patients who are suffering from this, for those who have passed away from it, and for the healthcare workers and others on the front line, to whom I am deeply indebted. I will even pray for those who don’t understand or care enough about their fellow man to make necessary sacrifices for us to all come out of this sooner rather than later. It didn’t take me being diagnosed with cancer, or me having to sign the papers to take my mother off life support, to learn what it’s like to be vulnerable. I would hope no one has to go through those lessons to become empathetic. But I will pray for an end to the virus, for a return to normal life, and for the morning that always comes after the nightfall.
It’s coming. It may be slow to arrive, but it’s coming. It always does. That, the miracle of the beautiful day after the terrible night, is the promise.