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?
Nobody to pray with
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.
..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!
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.
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.