Millions of Catholics around the world are now facing the reality that they won’t be able to attend any Holy Week liturgies or receive Communion on Easter Sunday. The Triduum is one of my favorite times of the year. I love getting caught up in community and rituals and the stories of God saving his people. I love the Easter Vigil. The candles, readings, and ancient rites bring me close to tears every year. As the director of RCIA at my parish, the Easter Vigil is traditionally when the people I’ve been accompanying for throughout the year finally enter into full Communion with the Church. This year won’t be the same. It’s easy for these disruptions to our traditions and rituals to unsettle us and shake our faith. Those of us who are people of faith are now forced to ask what our relationship with God is like when the most sacred rituals and Sacraments of our faith are not available?
The Catechism begins with this incredible proclamation, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (CCC 1). The reason God created us, the reason he does anything for us, is so we can share in his divine life. The Sacraments are so important for Catholics because they are the primary means by which God heals and transforms us. As the Catechism says:
“The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. ‘Sacramental grace’ is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature” (CCC 1129).
This is why so many of us are now aching for the Sacraments. We miss these physical signs where the Holy Spirit is actually present and working in our lives. We yearn for the familiar rituals that have been real sources of healing and comfort during the best and worst times. This ache is a good thing. It shows us that God has even transformed our feelings and desires so that our hearts long to be with him in the Sacraments. This longing is a gift.
However, I believe that in this season of separation from the rituals that many of us have always been able to access, we are being called to ask ourselves an extremely important question: Who is God? For many of us, our aching for the Sacraments is accompanied by fear. We’ve grown so accustomed to experiencing God’s presence through the Sacraments that our current separation from them can lead us to fearing that we are being separated from God. But this isn’t true. We must ask ourselves if God is someone who would abandon us during this time of disease and isolation, or is God our loving Father? If the latter is true, then we don’t need to convince God to act outside of his Sacraments.
The Catechism teaches that the Sacraments are gifts from God, the ordinary way by which he has promised he will always give us his life. In that sense, he binds us to the Sacraments because they are the means that Jesus established to heal and transform us. “But he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). The fruits of the Sacraments are available to us even at times when the physical signs aren’t (Cf. CCC 1258). Therefore, when we can’t physically be in church or receive Communion, we can still receive the fruits of the Sacrament.
The Church teaches that the celebration of the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, because at every Mass the entire Body of Christ (i.e. all who are baptized) is offered to the Father to be healed and transformed. This should bring us tremendous comfort because Mass is still being said, even during this pandemic! Priests around the world are still offering Mass. My own pastor is offering Mass. We can still consciously and intentionally place our lives, fears, merits, anxieties, prayers — our very selves — on the altar with the bread and wine to be transformed into something divine. Further, if we’re lucky enough to have a TV or access to the internet we can watch the celebration of Mass live and worship together at the same time as our community even if we cannot worship together in the same space.
I was recently listening to a Clerically Speaking podcast that discussed Jesus’ experience of being abandoned by God when he cried out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is God so he cannot actually be abandoned by God, but in that moment he felt abandoned by God. He experienced this so that when we feel similarly, we can know that our brother Jesus knows our suffering. Likewise, in this moment we may feel absent from the Eucharist but the Blessed Sacrament has not ceased healing and transforming us.
God is the one chasing after us so he can heal and transform us. We don’t need to convince him to give us his mercy and love. We don’t have to be afraid that our circumstances and limitations will prevent us from receiving his grace because he knows our situation better than we do. He knows our intentions and desires better than we do. If we needed to convince God to love us, then he would not be the Father we proclaim him to be.
That first paragraph of the Catechism goes on to say, “At every time and in every place, God draws close to man.” Not only when we are at Mass. Not just when we receive the Eucharist. No. At every time and in every place, God is drawing close to each of us. In his exhortation to young people, Pope Francis explains:
“What I can tell you, with absolute certainty, is that you can find security in the embrace of your heavenly Father, of the God who first gave you life and continues to give it to you at every moment….[Christ’s] outstretched arms on the cross are the most telling sign that he is a friend who is willing to stop at nothing” (Christus Vivit 113, 118).
Jesus, please let me feel your presence and consolation during this Holy Week. Jesus, in your name I renounce all the fear that overwhelms me at times. Jesus, in your name I renounce the lie that your grace is bound by your Sacraments. Jesus, in your name I believe and declare that at every time and in every place you are drawing close to me.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.