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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Death, Holy Week, and COVID-19

It is Holy Week, the most important week of the liturgical year, the week we memorialize Jesus’ culminating paschal days. Granted, there are joyful moments ― Jesus’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, for instance. But the whole thing is overshadowed by the day St. Ambrose simply called “the Day of Bitterness,” the day Jesus was murdered. Holy Week is a grave week. The ancients sometimes called it “Painful Week,” and not just because they ramped up their fasting.

This is, as you know, an especially odd Holy Week. We won’t be together for it. And yet, there is a sense in which the gravity of Holy Week is being brought home far more poignantly than usual on account of this situation. Our attention is being drawn to the thousands of dying COVID-19 victims. Right now, we are being bombarded with reminders of human fragility and death. This is very Lenten. We are meant, during this season, to meditate upon human mortality, including our own. Indeed, the news cycle has been a constant reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return” (Gen 3:19).

There is something natural, right, and good about mourning amidst this present crisis. We should be grieving the evil of this pandemic. Indeed, it would be wrong to be unmoved: “Woe to those who rest easy in Zion… who are not grieved over the ruin of [their brethren]” (Amos 6:1, 6). But Holy Week invites us to do more than just grieve for the victims of COVID-19. Indeed, if our vision is confined to the pain of this current crisis, we can get trapped inside the logic of anxiety and despair. In the coming weeks, as the virus begins to peak, we are going to see staggering numbers of deaths in our country. But the Church’s liturgy this Holy Week invites us to place our vision not just upon the agony of the world. It invites us also to place our vision upon the agony of Jesus. That is the point of Holy Week. Indeed, if you keep your eyes fixed only upon the news and never upon Jesus, how can you help but descend into anything but hopelessness? [1]

The interesting thing about Christianity is that, each year, we turn during Holy Week to meditate upon the mysteries of the Cross not because we want to lock ourselves into a logic of pain over the death of Jesus. On the contrary, Christians meditate upon Jesus’ agony and death because we know that his death is not the last word. And that is precisely the reason why we should take up Holy Week’s invitation to meditate upon Jesus’ agony and death in this season of COVID-19.

These are scary times. These are times that remind us that we too will someday die. Lent is meant to remind us of the same thing. The scenes of the outside world ― horrible scenes of pain and loss ― place before our eyes not only the pains of COVID-19 patients, but they can lead us also to the gasping pain of Jesus on that “Day of Bitterness.” If we keep the death of Jesus before us, then we’ll remember that his death was not the last word. And we’ll know, too, that all these COVID-19 deaths are not the last word. And the lost jobs, and the soaring domestic violence, and the mounting sense of social isolation ― if we keep the death of Jesus before us, we’ll remember that all of this decay and failure and woe is never the last word. And all these “Fridays” will somehow turn “Good,” even if that’s not until the next world. Let’s not forget to place the suffering Jesus before our eyes this week. He is the only way any of the victims have hope. He is the only way you and I have hope.


[1] Hans Boersma made this point in First Things this week. “Meditation on COVID-19,” April 2, 2020, available here.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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