Holy Week without going to church

Every church is shut

One of the measures taken by a lot of different governments in the current Corona virus situation, is to close all places of assembly, including the churches. This has been difficult already, with no Sunday going-to-Mass, no adoration sessions, no popping in to touch base with the Lord.  But the timing now is particularly difficult.  Lent meant that the family’s stocks of biscuits and chocolate were low even before we could go shopping, because everyone had given things up; but when they are all at home all day, it’s good occasionally to provide a morale-boosting treat. Now we have reached Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week.  We can’t even have Stations of the Cross or the Last Supper Mass; we won’t be able to go to church on Good Friday to feel the ache of what’s missing. We have had to park the Holy Sacrament in the sanctuary a couple of weeks back, without even any ceremony; and when it comes to the Vigil or the joy of Easter morning, how joyful will we manage to feel?

Flocking to the house of the Lord in happier times
Nobody to pray with
praying with correct social distancing

Of course you can still pray ‘alone and in secret’, but the community part of prayer is turning out to be more important to most of us than we realised.   Ekklesia (Church) is from the word which means calling out to draw together, to assemble.  It is fundamental to our faith.  At least we should be able to have more empathy with those Christians who have to manage like this all the time, once this is over. But I’ve been trying to think of practical alleviations for now.

New use of new technology

Masses on-line are working really well, and we are all grateful to those who have managed to provide the technology and have it function more than adequately in these difficult days.  It seems only last week that our parish priest was having trouble with a single microphone, and now people are livestreaming and recording whole Masses.

even better social distancing
..but not the complete event

We attend attentively to these Masses, but it’s a strange experience.  The ones I have seen (attended? taken part in?) have been of either just a priest, or a priest and one other (either a reader, or a concelebrant).  The Mass as such is there, but no congregation, and (for me, crucially) no congregational singing.   One of the recorded Masses I attended had a priest who intoned the end of the Proper, and my family and I duly sang Amen, but somehow it emphasized the gap between us and what was happening on-screen rather than the opposite.

Holy Week with a mute button

So now we are facing a Holy Week with no congregational music, and I am planning ways to supply what I feel I will miss the most.  I know some people will think that we should offer up our discomfort, and of course that is an option.  We will all have to do that anyway, as I don’t think I will be able to compensate for what I am missing.  But here are a few suggestions of music which helps us to shape and understand the words of the Holy Week liturgies.   For me, and I’m sure for others,  much of the effect is added by the music.   I am sure these services, like our on-line Masses,  will be available on-line in some form, though without live music and congregation.  Even if you had a socially-distancing congregation, most non-professionals would not want to sing on their own so far away from the next voice!

easier to sing as a group
Holy Week hymns not an option

Before the virus overtook all our arrangements, I was wondering about assembling a list of the best Holy Week hymns, or even hymns creating a virtual Stations of the Cross, but I’ve parked that idea for now (maybe I’ll do it next year).  Hymns really are for singing yourself with a group, so I won’t be digging up favourite ones on YouTube just to listen to (though if the BBC plays me some services from past years with good singalonga hymns over the Triduum, I’ll probably join in while making my hot cross buns). 

Passion music to listen to : Bach, Schütz, Stainer

The Passion reading for Palm Sunday this year is St Matthew’s, and the Good Friday one St John’s.  Bach set both, quite differently.  The St Matthew Passion is a work of great scale, almost lush in its sweep, and the link is to a big choir and orchestra.  The St John is gentler and more intimate, and I like to listen to it with a small choir (here’s a link).   In both cases, the narrative is interspersed with comments (arias and chorales), which is the way that Bach’s church did it;  but both these linked recordings have subtitles, so you can follow where you are. 

Heinrich Schütz  (1585 – 1672)  also set both the St Matthew and St John Passions, but he did it in a straight run of the narrative, and with no instrumental support.  It’s simpler and more devotional, but I can’t find a subtitled version.  I know the Bach much better, but I love Schütz’s Christmas music, so I’ll be listening to his Passions as well.  Other listening music is the Passion part of Handel’s Messiah,  which means Part 2, but without the Hallelujah Chorus at the end.  Save that (and Part 3) for Easter Sunday.  Something else I love dearly is Stainer’s Crucifixion, unfairly neglected by us Catholics, which I find very moving.  

By the time we get to Easter Sunday, if you want joyful music, try putting ‘surrexit Christus hodie’ or ‘surrexit Christus vere’ into Google and YouTube.  Baroque Czechs and Netherlanders wrote some truly beautiful music for this, exciting to listen to (and really exhilarating to sing in different times).

A modern take on the Via Crucis

One other suggestion for those of you with children at home, who want to tell the story of Holy Week.  When I was teaching the First Communion class, some years ago, we did models, like little tableaux,  of the crucial stages of the Passion narrative for the class coming up to Holy Week.  I did it with Playmobil, but it would work just as well with Lego.  You need a clearly recognisable Jesus figure, a few representative apostles, some Roman soldiers (capes and helmets), a Pilate figure with something that can double as a basin for handwashing, a Herod figure with crown, a spare crown (of thorns, or you can improvise with brown wool or even paper), and a couple of representative women.  For scene setting you need a few trees and bushes, fires, a throne or two, a plate and a cup (some of the Harry Potter Lego would give you cups and fires).   You need a base plate for each separate scene, just to keep it reasonably straightforward. 

Set up the Last Supper;  the Garden of Gethsemane;  Herod’s palace, Pilate’s palace; and a green path, which will lead to Calvary.  Then what I did was to tell the story slowly, moving the little figures from place to place.  Spread it out over two or three tables if you can, so that everyone has to follow the journey.  You can have a real crucifix at the end of the green path, and light a candle there when you reach it (put Jesus in your pocket here, because he’s on the crucifix).   You can repurpose two of the apostles as the thieves for this scene, because they’ve all run away, but make sure the women are there, however peripherally, in every scene.  I found the children were absolutely rapt and reverent, and it helped us all to understand exactly how the story unfolded. 

The power of the cliffhanger

You stop fairly abruptly at the Crucifixion, which is entirely appropriate, and you don’t need to go into detail.  Indeed, saying to the children, ‘And now we all have to wait and see what can possibly happen next’, is a good way to leave it.  You could then secretly (I haven’t actually done this, because we’ve never not been able to go to church for Easter before) make one of the little Resurrection gardens that you see in Anglican churches, and leave it to be found on Easter morning with the Lord standing outside it (and Mary Magdalene looking baffled or surprised  – lift up the arms on the little figure – in the garden).  I think that would work, because it’s like leaving the crib empty on Christmas Eve and filled with the baby on Christmas morning.

Christ emerging from tomb
resurrexit sicut dixit

Use whatever helps, because the message is so much more important than the ways we use to tell it.  Even music, though it pains me to admit it.  And the Lord will himself turn our mourning into dancing, as it says in Ps 29/30, even if it is to music that we can only make when we get back to our churches.


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No struggle for relevance in the Psalms

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Relevance is something we all long for. We all want to matter to other people for genuine reasons, not just dutiful affection or because we make good cakes. When you write anything more than a shopping list, you are hoping that someone will find it relevant. When people do find some piece of writing which is relevant to them, they tend to spread it around, to encourage others to enjoy it. It can be very upsetting when your nearest and dearest don’t react as you wanted to something you have shown them!  I once asked my mother whether she liked one of these blogs, and she said that it had been a bit more interesting than some of the others, which was not quite the reaction I had been hoping for.

hoping for inspiration before writing

Managing to stay relevant over time

The writers of the Bible were not different from us in this respect, but at least they are not standing at our side to gauge our reactions to what they wrote. The Bible was written across a long period of time, but all of it long ago now. The Church tells us that it is all holy, revealed and relevant, and then chooses parts of it to be read out for us each week (sometimes every day, e.g. the Magnificat), because it is so meaningful for us.  The Lectionary does not use all the Bible; we don’t even move through the entire Psalter.  The Church has decided to leave some bits out, sometimes in the light of New Testament revelation, sometimes because it does not seem relevant.  That’s not surprising, when you consider how old the Bible is, and how very different the circumstances.  In fact, what is amazing is how relevant some of it feels to be, and I would argue that the Book of Psalms is perhaps the easiest part of the Bible for any modern person to find relevant, sometimes excruciatingly so.

Listening attentively

Authenticity is always relevant

The reason why it feels relevant is because the stories and situations are ones in which we might find ourselves (I’m talking about the history books of the Bible here; some of the Law books are a bit technical, which is why we have expert theologians, and some are poetry, to which we respond at a different level).  The Bible is arguably the most authentic book ever written, because it was written out of current need and by lots of different people.   This gives it an urgency and an authenticity which are unmistakable.  This also means that it is sprawling and often untidy in its narrative (two versions of the Creation even in the first two chapters), because the guiding principle of the writers was not to create one elegant well-put-together narrative, but to write down what they reckoned was true and helpful for us all.  Genuine edification, in all senses.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away

safe amid perils, in a very spaceship ark

However, sometimes we struggle to see the relevance of one of the Sunday readings to our own lives.  We can usually work out what the authorities were hoping for us to grasp as the connection between the readings, and anyway that’s one of the subjects that a priest can develop in a homily.  There are times when a more obscure message can be particularly rewarding if you’ve had to puzzle it out.

But the psalmist lives next door (or even closer)

But the Psalms are different.  The Responsorial Psalm is there in the prescribed liturgy to shape our response to the first reading and, if we are lucky, move us gently towards the second, very occasionally even reappearing as a quotation in the Gospel itself;  but the wonderful thing about the Psalms is that, because they are short and metrical, they stay in our minds and return to us in moments of need, just like other forms of poetry.  The language of the psalms is that of direct lived experience.  It is simple.  The psalmist speaks straight to God in the second person;  there are other people around in the world which he evokes, an occasional friend, a wife, children, courtiers and (lots of) enemies,  but there is nothing to stop us taking the psalmist’s words and using them as our own.  We recognise his experiences, however long ago they may have happened, because they happen to us today, and he reacts (mostly) exactly as we do, even if we wish we didn’t.

The whole of life is here

That is another reason why the psalms are so loved.  It doesn’t matter what crisis you find yourself in, there is an appropriate psalm for you.  If you want to shout at God, there is a psalm for it.  If you are feeling despair, there is even a psalm for that.  If you want to ask for help, you have an embarras de choix.  If you want to thank God for saving you from peril (e.g. Ps 56/57), wild beasts (e.g. Ps 34/35), vicious enemies (ditto), flooding (Pss 41/42, 87/88), fire (Ps 96/97) or pestilence (see below), the psalms have the words for it; and just as in a church you are aware of the people who have been there to pray before you.   The psalms have a similar accretion of human suffering, and ways to deal with it.

Love in a time of cholera

Job surrounded by fierce animals
things can get tough

Here we are in a time of pestilence and sickness all over the world, holed up as much as possible in the smallest of groups, trying not to infect or be infected, and yet closer together in our fears and aspirations than we are usually.  When we dive into the psalms to find relevant prayers and comfort, we are doing it not only with lots of our contemporaries, but also with all the people who have done the same thing in their day, in their outbreaks of illness, in their desperation.  I find this very comforting.

Sickness in the Psalms

As you would expect, there is a lot about sickness in the psalms.  The psalmist prays for comfort and healing in sickness, for freedom from contagion, for the return of health.  He even threatens God with running out of worshippers if he allows all his faithful ones to die (Pss 29/30, 87/88,  113/115).   It has taken the current pandemic to make me realise how acutely observed these psalms are, as we are usually so much better protected from mysterious illness by modern medicine.  But currently we are in a situation which the psalmist would recognise.  We know very little about this illness’ behaviour.  We are unsure about its strength and duration.  We follow current best advice; and we still don’t know whether we might catch it or (worse) give it to someone else.

We can make the words of Ps 90/91 our own now; we recognise the sickening fear of the plague that prowls in the darkness[..] the scourge that lays waste at noon , because we are finding it hard to defend ourselves against this illness.  We no longer equate sickness with guilt, as in Pss 31/32 and 37/38, imagining it to be deliberately caused by God; but we recognise the feelings of fear and helplessness (With my cares I cannot rest, Ps 54/55),  running a temperature (Ps 37/38 : All my frame burns with fever; / all my body is sick );  pain and weakness (Like water I am poured out, disjointed are all my bones, Ps 21/22)  with a new immediacy.  The psalmist talks about hearing of someone else’s illness (Ps 34/35), and even though it was a hostile person, there is no Schadenfreude, but fellow feeling : When they were sick, I went into mourning, / afflicted with fasting. / My prayer was ever on my lips, / as for a brother, a friend.

God as doctor (reversing the metaphor)

There is a very encouraging sequence in several psalms.  The speaker falls ill; he calls for help; God intervenes and he gets better; he sings to God in praise and thanksgiving.  This is the sort of movement we see in many psalms, but there is a whole little group in the twenties (Pss 25/26, 26/27, 27/28, 29/30, 31/32).  The psalmist finds much comfort in his faith that God will keep him safe (Ps 26 : For there he keeps me safe in his tent / in the day of evil. / He hides me in the shelter of his tent, /  on a rock he sets me safe) and of course this is what we are all trying to do with our own more vulnerable beloved.  We have to do everything we can, and then trust to God for the rest.  To leap forward in time from the psalmist, here is a similar confidence from Julian of Norwich : He shall keep thee securely.  As Julian herself said, this is ‘an endless comfort’;  and she was writing during the time that the Black Death was ravaging England.

Handwashing and the psalms

The best advice to keep ourselves healthy is to keep washing our hands, for long enough to sing a particular song (or say a prayer if you prefer).  I was delighted to find there are even references to this in the psalms.  In Psalm 17/18, the psalmist describes being in terrible danger, but then God rescues him.  He brought me forth into freedom, / he saved me because he loved me. / He rewarded me because I was just, / repaid me for my hands were clean (v 20f).  It is even repeated later in the same psalm : He repaid me because I was just / and my hands were clean  (v 25).   And again in Ps 23/24 : Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? […] The man with clean hands (v 3f).  One more : To prove my innocence I wash my hands (Ps 25/26, v 6).  I cannot help wondering whether Pilate is thinking of this on Good Friday, showing the Jews that he knew their prayers as well as his own.

Peaceful holy well
plenty of water for washing….and welling up to eternal life

It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing

Of course, this is metaphorical washing, and what we all need to concentrate on at the moment is the real sort, with the singing.  But when we feel ‘tempested, travailed and afflicted’ (Julian again), we can turn to the psalms for the words we need, knowing that the psalmists have been through this before, but God looked after them even as he is now looking after us.  Last word to Julian of Norwich : You shall not be overcome.

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