Editor’s note: We had heard a lot recently—and rightly so—about how families and individual members of the lay faithful might go about participating in some spiritual way in the Holy Week liturgies when unable to attend them in person. But what about our pastors? How did they celebrate without their faithful? What did they experience? In this series on Holy Week’s most holy days, Kansas City, KS, pastor, Father Nick Blaha, shows us the inside of his church—and his priestly soul—during Holy Week without a congregation.
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (April 5)
The light through the church windows is dull and chilled; a cold snap has brought freezing rain, and the church feels stonier than usual, like the great basilicas of the old world. The furnace is quiet, strangled by purse strings. It shall not be revived any time soon.
A parcel of Brazilian Franciscans enters and spreads through the church like hermits discomforted by the proximity the sacred synaxis demands. The occasional creak of the old wooden pews is the only break in the funereal stillness before Mass begins.
It is a funereal stillness, indeed. Death is not so far away as he once was. His icy fingers are ungloved, and they have laid themselves on our shoulders.
This will be my first Holy Week in the parishes I serve as pastor, having been reassigned recently to a multilingual cluster of inner-city churches in the urban core of Kansas City, KS. It will certainly be the most unusual set of high holy days I have ever been a part of in my 40 years of existence. My relief at not having to negotiate a bilingual Holy Week in three different churches is surpassed only by my disappointment at not having the chance to do so.[CW1]
There have been days in the recent past—I say it to my shame—when the milling, madding crowds of people in this church were a frustration to me. All too often I regarded them as a distracted and distracting audience rather than a priestly people assembled for the sacrificial meal. I strike my breast in disbelief at how altered the scene is, and how altered I am. The teenagers have been cleared out of their hiding spots in the stairwell. No toddlers wander, all innocently, through the sanctuary. Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor / Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor, my heart cries, all out of season.
Yet this stillness is not unwelcome, either. In his Meditations Before Mass, Romano Guardini contrasts the negative silence that we feel the urge to fill against the rich, brimming tranquility that is the condition for all hearing, for all prayer. “Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it.” Could it be that the untimely muteness of the Church, spurring the faithful and priests alike to strain in eagerness for the resounding of God’s Word, is a work of the Holy Spirit to clear the spring from which the Word rises?
If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.
In the hushed emptiness of the church after all have departed, the stony coldness magnifies the Lord.
Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper (April 9)
It’s Holy Thursday. The sacristy is filled with the scent of Easter lilies, delivered to the church just a few hours ago. Our preparations for this solemn celebration of the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist are simple and straightforward. Since this Mass is offered without the usual full church, we arrange the high altar for the celebration ad orientem, priest and people journeying toward the Lord.
The gesture of the Washing of Feet is omitted. Yet a sense that we few assembled here in the church are here on behalf of the whole parish is powerful. [CW2] There is an intensity, even a fierceness, present in our prayer, amplified by the narrative of the ordination of the apostles to priestly service. I ask those assembled to dedicate their intentions for this Mass to the joyful discernment of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life on the part of our young parishioners, through the intercession of Blessed Miguel Pro.
A religious vocation can seem all too fragile. There are tremendous distractions that drown out the deep desire of the heart to spend oneself entirely for the Church, in the loving union in service to Jesus’ Body. How can a young person in our day recognize and respond to this call from the heart from the Creator? It seems impossible at times. There is in our world what feels like ambient poison that stifles the seed before it is able to germinate, and sterilizes spiritual fatherhood and motherhood.
Yet seen from the perspective of faith, this fragility and precariousness in the call to a vocation testifies to the Providential work of the Divine Gardener in creating fruitfulness where we see only thorns and rocky soil. Each of us called to this consecrated service recognizes turning points in our vocation story: a chance meeting, a strange coincidence, a passing word or phrase that the memory doesn’t surrender. These turning points, unremarkable at the time, acquire great significance in retrospect, and often prove decisive in ways we had never imagined. The magnalia Dei aren’t always accomplished in broad daylight for all to see. However ordinary and placid our vocations may be, it is always the case that they are the result of a special work of God. Gratias agimus tibi.
A tiny group of faithful are present in the church on this Holy Thursday, our church lit only by the evening sun. Together, we turn towards the crucifix mounted over the altar and lift our hearts to him, begging for the fruitfulness that will bring glory to his name and salvation to souls. After receiving his Precious Body and Blood, we chant the Pange lingua, dispersing to our homes in silence, confident in our hope that our prayers are just the sort of small, weak things that the Lord uses to accomplish wonders in the hearts of his people.
Friday of the Passion of the Lord (April 10)
Strangely, my thoughts on this Good Friday stray to a series of Lenten retreats I led as a university chaplain at a secular college, in which we would trek into the Texas desert for a week of backpacking, reading, and meditation, all in the penitential spirit of the anchorites of early Christianity. The retreat had a different feel each year, but regardless of the variations, a question that began our reading each year from the sayings of the desert fathers always stands out as a landmark in my memory.
Why, one might ask, do we hear nothing of the interior life of the abbas and ammas, but only their extreme acts of bodily endurance? Is this what defines the spiritual life? Today, the same question presents itself during this somber reading of the Lord’s Passion. Why is so little said about what was happening in Jesus’ heart? After the simple repetitions of the Agony in the Garden—“Father, let this cup pass from me”—no expression of interior anguish is even attempted. The Gospel simply catalogs the abuse and betrayal he endured, marking key fulfillments of prophecy along the way; we are given nothing but the grim litany of torture. At the cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him,” there is no closeup on the face of the Messiah, in which we see those words land like blows. His last words dribble to the ground without benefit of pathos; laconic, Apollonian, sparse. It reads more like the fall of a Nordic hero than an account of the most confounding event in the history of the universe.
On my desert retreat, the words of Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003) offered me a key to unlock this strange problem:
The life of the spirit cannot be conveyed, except in images and analogies which are deceptive; those who know do not need them, and those who do not know are only led by them to partake imaginatively, but not really, in a world which to many is still out of reach.
How preposterous to think any one of us could presume to gain access to these supernatural mysteries unaided by grace—by a lifetime of divine grace! Cast out of Paradise, we cannot return; for a cherub is posted with a flaming sword at the gate of the Garden of the Incarnate Word’s mortal anguish, in which the Tree of Life stretches wide its limbs. It is “a closed garden; hedged all about, a spring shut in and sealed” (Canticles 4:12). It is one and the same Paradise, and “none may shut when he opens, none open when he shuts” (Isaiah 22:22). All that is left to us is the imprint the revoked crown left upon our heads, and the way back is down, down, down.
Yet the imprint doesn’t fade with time; it abides. As I lay prostrate before the altar, marked by exile, I pray on behalf of the people entrusted to me[CW3] :
Blessed are those who have understood that they are nothing in themselves…. If they are “something” it is because they are loved of God and because they know for certain that their worth in God’s eyes can be measured by the humiliation of the Son of God, his life, the Agony in the Garden, the dereliction of the Cross—the Blood of Christ.
May his Blood be upon us, and within us, and upon our children.
The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night (April 11)
We process into the sanctuary from darkness. The Paschal candle is blessed, and its flame is kindled. The song of exaltation is intoned with formal restraint, channeling the joy of Easter into the chanting of a single voice.
So many parts of the Vigil are to be omitted that we select the long form of everything, including the use of all nine readings. Because the preparations have been so effortless, and the ministers are already so familiar with this celebration, I find myself free to actually participate prayerfully in the rites without any anxiety whatsoever. I cannot remember the last time the Vigil was so tranquil! I can hear the Scriptures proclaimed with a quiet heart. I can allow the ritual to bear me along. The accustomed tension long associated with these hours is entirely absent, and I am lifted into the subdued beauty of this summit of liturgical prayer. Though there are lamentably few present at the sacred mysteries, I must receive this as a gift. [CW4]
One by one, the readings pass through me. The psalms are sung with simple fervor, lifted higher by the resonance of pipe and lute. And through it all, the same thought recurs: the Church is young.
Yes, at age 40, I am quite possibly the oldest person here; the ministers necessary for service in the sanctuary are nearly all still in simple vows as Franciscans. Yet it is not a bodily youth that characterizes the renewal of the Body of Christ, but its embrace of Love. Isaiah puts this question to us in the fifth reading at the Easter Vigil:
Why spend your money for what is not bread,
your wages for what fails to satisfy? (55:2)
Here is the food of faith by which the Church is made young and vigorous. Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare (Isaiah 55:2). Here is the perpetual wedding song that “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.” Here is the infusion of life, for life is in the Blood, and we who receive that Blood are given life. It is Blood that transcends the health mere human blood can confer because the Life it bears is divine. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life (Isaiah 55:3).
This youth is the fruit of faith. The Scriptures of this holy night instruct us in faith by our father in faith, Abraham. I look out from the sanctuary over the men and women religious who have, like Abraham, left home and country and mother tongue to follow the will of God—lekh lekah, “go now to the land that I will show you.” Like Abraham, a precious gift has been given against all hope, and then demanded back.
Yet the empty tomb resounds with the words of the poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907), and with the simplicity of poetry, he uncovers the meaning of such sacrifices:
All which I took from thee, I did’st but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost,
I have stored for thee at Home.
Rise, clasp my hand, and come.
May the emptiness of our churches allow an echo from the empty tomb to bring peace and joy to the hearts of all the faithful in these holy days.
Easter Sunday (April 12) and the Easter Season
One of the recurring themes of conversation with my married friends is how similar married and priestly life can be. The parallels between the sacramental commitment of the married couple and the priest are numerous, though not always obvious. Looking back over this Triduum, I can say I experienced for the first time an uncomfortable point of contact between the priestly and the married states: that of the empty nest.[CW5]
When children leave home for good, parents must begin to do without the chaos and closeness of their brood, a chapter of life which for some spans decades. I imagine that a bittersweet silence sets in, combining pride at their children’s independence, relief in their own newfound freedom, and the sorrow of irreversible parting. In this fallen world, parents also harbor fear, self-pity, or resentment that they are being forgotten as their adult children dedicate the best of their time and effort to getting their feet beneath them and starting families of their own. Then too, what is it like for parents, years after the fact, to hear their children thank them for the discipline or instruction that had been only a source of discord or eye-rolling in the home? Is there gratification in being able to welcome their children into a shared perspective, since they as parents themselves now understand the loving sacrifice such discipline and instruction demanded, and its value?
I can’t say I identify with every one of these feelings as a priest during the 2020 Triduum. “Spiritual father” doesn’t translate well into “changing spiritual diapers” or spiritually “grounding” misbehaving parishioners. That kind of condescension is rightly condemned as clericalism. But I nonetheless found myself in these holy days to be surprised by a resemblance between these experiences of the “empty nest.” A priest doesn’t have the same goal as a parent; the shelter-at-home separation is not meant to be permanent, as a child maturing into an independent adult is. Still, there is fatherly satisfaction in seeing the faithful take up the mantle of spiritual authority, creating catechetical and liturgical resources for the church, and applying their expertise to present needs. [CW6]
Even more importantly, mothers and fathers are embracing their own baptismal priesthood in admirable ways by intensifying their family’s identity as the domestic church. They are creating prayer corners, being consistent in daily prayer and works of mercy as a family, and sanctifying the Lord’s Day beyond simply turning Mass on—and then off. Whether or not their neighbors or social circles join in, households are taking seriously the call to craft their own identities as wise disciples who are on a mission. They are, in other words, growing into the priestly role, and precisely in the ways baptismal grace is meant to shape the lives of believers. What priest would not echo Moses’ rejoinder to Joshua, who insisted certain unsanctioned Israelites be forbidden to prophesy: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29).
As a fellow pastor put it in a recent conversation, the question on our hearts is much like what empty nesters surely ask themselves in relation to their fully fledged offspring: “What am I called to be for these persons now that they’re on their own?” We’re not there in the way we once were to give advice or encouragement, or to remind them of their dignity or potential. Yet that doesn’t mean we love or care about them any less, or that we mean anything less to them. It just means that God is doing something new in our midst, and our job is to remain open to the grace that is already anticipating every change, whether sacred or profane.