Watch and Pray

Tonight we watched two strange Holy Thursday Masses.

The Pope’s Mass in an empty St Peter’s basilica played on my laptop while I made dinner, the computer resting next to my tray of hot cross buns. There was no washing of feet. No Eucharistic procession to the altar of repose. It was solemn and starkly beautiful. The Gloria rang out so merrily, though, with cheerful bells.

Then after dinner and a dessert of hot cross buns, we gathered in the office to watch our own bishop, Cardinal Sean, in an empty Holy Cross Cathedral. It was also starkly beautiful. Pope Francis’ Mass was Italian and Latin. Cardinal Sean’s was also bilingual: Spanish and English. We stood, sat, kneeled. One tired child leaned against me. Another rested his bare feet on me at one point. But we all sang and said the responses and made a spiritual communion. Filled with joy and peace and yet also with a heavy heart. Unable to forget the sickness as an acolyte moved to disinfect the ambo after each reader.

Mass ended with a beautiful Tantum Ergo and then Sweet Sacrament We Thee Adore.

Bella reminded me that we began this Lenten season with Mass at the Pastoral Center’s Bethany Chapel with the cardinal. And then too we sang Sweet Sacrament… Cardinal Sean himself began singing it after communion and the congregation joined him, the words of one of my favorite hymns uplifting me. Who could have imagined then this Triduum? But here we are anyway. Holy Week has not been canceled. Easter will not be canceled. We will celebrate as so many Christians have in difficult circumstances with alleluias on our lips because Christ is Risen to save us from sin and death.

But that doesn’t make it feel easy tonight as I prepare to watch and pray. This agony in the garden which I join in watching with all the suffering world right now. On Palm Sunday the Trappestines at our local Mount Saint Mary Abbey reminded us:

“ In Gethsemane, all of a sudden and for the first time, we are faced with Jesus at his weakest. He knows that he will not make it out of the garden alive. He will be handed over there, die there, and be buried there. And he is terrified and alone.

Into this place of horror, the disciples cannot follow, though his words suggest that he would like them to. They are already falling away and do not know what to say to him. They cannot face their master’s fear any more than we can face our parents’ tears. But it is really their own fear they cannot face. Is it not the case when we discover that our parents, our role models, our seniors, our leaders and in fact, everyone around us is subject to the isolating terror and crumbling weakness which is the human condition? We thought we alone were weak, and they were strong. That we are not in fact alone in our fear and weakness makes it all the more terrible. So, the disciples sleep.

This week, Jesus asks us to keep watch with him. As we do so, he shows us a way through fear to a share in his rocklike trust in the Father.

Keep watch with me…
…when I am forced to stay home with family members who are verbally, physically or sexually abusive.

Keep watch with me…
…when I spend spend twelve hours a day working in the ER, and twelve more lonely and sleepless in an empty apartment, separated from family members for their own safety.

Keep watch with me…
…when due to addiction or mental illness, confined space and restricted movement push me to the limit of endurance and beyond.

Keep watch with me…
…when I bear responsibility for the safety and well-being of others and yet am helpless to protect them from danger.

Keep watch with me…
…when, due to imprisonment, homelessness or poverty, I am trapped in a dangerous situation facing peril without protection.

Keep watch with me…
…when I occupy one bed among thousands in a tent hospital, surrounded by people and activity, yet separated from everyone I know and love.

Keep watch with me…
…when I can only watch my elderly relative suffer from the other side of a window and hope and pray that they are spared.

Keep watch with me…
…when, because of lack of medical equipment, I am forced to make choices no one should have to between one life and another.

Let us keep watch every day this week, until we hear another passion gospel read on Good Friday. Let us draw near to Jesus in the time of his weakness and fear and allow him to draw us into the certainty of his unfailing presence. Let us gather into our hearts all those who need someone to keep watch with them, as we pray as a community and in solitude, as we ponder the Scriptures deeply, as we make all the necessary preparations for the days ahead. Let us live this Holy Week like none other.

My heart has been heavy all week, thinking of patients suffering and dying alone. Thinking of doctors and nurses and chaplains pushing through the fatigue and grief and stress to minister to the sick and dying. Thinking of people suffering at home, alone, or in terrible situations. Thinking of those whose family members have died who cannot attend funerals. Who are alone and desolate in their grief. People who are scared, lonely, poor, desperate. Jesus in his anguish feels their pain and I, watching with him, watch with them as well.

Tonight and tomorrow and the next day are the traditional vigil as we commemorate Jesus’ agony, imprisonment, trial, death, and entombment. But this pandemic will, barring miracles, last through Easter. And so though we will rejoice, I will also continue our vigil in solidarity with those for whom Easter brightness seems very far away indeed.

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