It is still hard for me to believe that we will not be assembling for Holy Week, the holiest week of the liturgical year for us Christians. Holy Week begins with the blessing of the palms on Passion/Palm Sunday, but it is the last three days, the Triduum, the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord that is the liturgical and spiritual pinnacle for believers.
The Triduum begins at sunset on Holy Thursday, the day we commemorate the Last Supper and, consequently, the First Eucharist. I invite you to take out your Bibles and read ahead the readings for Holy Thursday:
Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14;
1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15. Although they are all so rich, it is the first reading from Exodus that speaks most powerfully to me amidst this pandemic.
A little context. In the Book of Exodus, we hear about our ancestors in faith, the Hebrews, who were enslaved for about 300 years (approx. 1600-1300 B.C.E.) in Egypt under various pharaohs. God called a man named Moses to lead his people to freedom. Not an easy task. But when Pharaoh constantly refused Moses’ request to “let my people go (free),” Moses in response threatened Pharaoh. The threats came in the form of plagues, 10 in all, each one worse than the previous one. Pharaoh remained obstinate, as God had foretold, and refused to let the Hebrews go. The last of the 10 plagues was the striking down of all first-born in Egypt, both humans and animals, Hebrews and Egyptians.
To be spared the death of their own firstborn, the Hebrews were instructed to prepare a special meal. The meal would include bitter herbs, unleavened bread and a lamb. The lamb was to be roasted and eaten. If the lamb was too much for one family, they were to invite another family to join them. Some of the blood from the lamb was to be placed upon the two door posts and the lintel of houses. Those houses marked with the blood of the lamb would have God’s protection forcing the angel of death to pass over these houses thus sparing their firstborn.
How ironic are the times we live in with COVID-19. For the time being, we cannot do as our ancestors did. We cannot gather households together for a common, sacred meal. Although not all scripture scholars agree, the majority do hold to the belief that Jesus, at the Last Supper, was celebrating Passover. For he sent Peter and John to, “Go and make the preparations for us to eat the Passover” (Lk. 22:8). We cannot, unfortunately, gather to commemorate our own Passover.
For 1956, I thought the classic movie, “The 10 Commandments” did quite well with the special effects. In the movie the 10th plague, the angel of death, is represented as a mist moving from house to house. You cannot really see it, but its effects are deadly. Those with the blood of the lamb on their doorframes are spared; those without it are doomed. Similarly,
COVID-19 is as insidious, sinister, and deadly as the angel of death. It has us hunkering down in our houses, maintaining physical distancing, and praying this virus passes over us. We are living our own Passover similar to those who celebrated that first Passover.
How were our ancestor in faith, the Hebrews, told to eat that first Passover meal? “With a belt around your waist…” (Ex. 12:11). Whenever I read “with a belt around your waist” it means: PREPARE TO BE LED. The Hebrew were about to be led by God. But they had to trust that God would lead them out of slavery, that God would sustain them on the journey, and that God would bring them into the land of freedom. I connect this “belt around your waist” instruction to something the Risen Lord, some 1500 years later, would say to Peter. “(Peter) when you grow old (when you’re no longer in control and can’t move about freely), you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go” (Jn. 21:18). Again, I think it means: PREPARE TO BE LED. The doom and gloom side of coping with this pandemic is that we are hemmed inside our houses, seemingly not in control, and hoping the angel of death can be warded off. The faith side of this is that we are being led by God—always have been and always will be.
The liberated Hebrews, venturing from Pharaoh’s cruelty, had no idea where they were going. They had to trust God and support one another. In the same vein, we will get through this pandemic not by individual will power. We will get through this pandemic by grace, God’s grace, and community. Yes, community. Although we cannot gather now, we are still a community. And not just any community; we are the Body of Christ. Jesus, the Lamb of God, insidious as a virus, cunning as a fox, still whispers, “Stretch out your hands…PREPARE TO BE LED.”
Fr. Phil Mulligan