Since the start of the year I was planning to focus this month’s video on how—in the season of Lent—the Church continually places before us the fact of our mortality. This is perhaps most noticeable in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, when Catholics have their foreheads smudged with black ash while the priest whispers to them, “Remember that you are dust.”
It’s an important reminder of something we all know but probably don’t call to mind often enough – namely, that—without God—all that remains of our lives is a little pile of dust. The crumbs of ash on our foreheads fall away in a matter of hours, soon to be forgotten, just as the lives we lead will fall away in a matter of decades (if we’re lucky), while the world rolls on without us. Such is our earthly destiny. And so our religion says to us “memento mori” – remember that you will die.
Well, since our last video, a certain virus has, well, gone viral, and people the world over are being forced to face the reality of their mortality. In many countries, day-to-day life has ground to a halt, and fear and anxiety seem to be spreading as fast as the virus itself. To be sure, this virus is a serious threat, and the measures being taken are necessary. And yet I suspect that the anxiety in our society at present is not simply a result of the threat we face or the protective measures being asked of us, but is also a reflection of the fact that many people in our society simply haven’t felt the need to face their mortality all that much in recent decades.
If you think about it, for most of human history, people have always had to deal with the possibility of invaders at the gates, or wondering what they were going to eat next month, or not knowing if their children would make it past the age of five. In contrast, the comfort and security that we’ve enjoyed in a country like Australia for the last few decades is really quite unprecedented in human history. And if we take such comfort for granted and think ourselves entitled to it, a little brush with our own mortality can lead people to do strange things such as panic-shop for toilet paper. (YOINK!)
For the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasise the passing nature of our earthly pleasures and achievements, and prompts us to conduct our lives with one eye on the life to come. Everything in this world is marked by the sign of the Cross, so we should not be shocked or surprised when things unexpectedly fall apart, as they have in recent weeks.
And yet, for the Christian, the Cross is not simply a sign of suffering – it’s first-and-foremost a sign of victory. The Cross is the sign by which Christ conquered the ancient foe and won for us our salvation. Lent doesn’t exist for its own sake, but it serves as a preparation for Easter, in which we celebrate how—through the Cross—Christ won the ultimate victory over sin and death, and transformed the ultimate suffering into the greatest of joys.
And so our reminders of our mortality—the Memento Mori moments in our lives—aren’t designed to make us fearful, but rather are meant to help us face the reality of the Cross. Because it is only through the mystery of the Cross that we discover that the fact of our mortality has been transformed by Christ into Good News, since—thanks to his victory at Easter—death no longer has the final say.
And so the fact that the world is going through this collective brush with mortality during Lent is, for us Catholics, rather interesting timing. It is likewise interesting that one result of the virus’ impact has been that much of the world has found itself placed under quarantine. The word “quarantine” comes from a Venetian dialect and literally means “forty days”. During times of plague, the policy in Venice was to make ships arriving from plague-stricken areas wait off its port for forty days to ensure that no latent cases of plague were on board. As you might have guessed, the number forty was taken from the forty days of Lent, which in turn comes from Christ’s forty days of prayer and fasting in the desert. The ships under quarantine would have forty days of isolation to ensure the physical health of those on board in preparation for landing. Similarly, in Lent the faithful are given forty days in the figurative desert with the Lord to facilitate their spiritual cleansing in preparation for the great mysteries of Easter.
Well, the Great Fast of Lent is taking on a whole new meaning this year, as health precautions are requiring the faithful in many parts of the world to forego participation in the Mass itself, for what might end up being several months. For many Catholics this seems like a cruel twist. It is precisely our faith that helps give meaning to our suffering, and as the Second Vatican Council emphasised, the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith – both the origin and the goal of all our spiritual desire.
It goes without saying that this is a very difficult situation, and many bishops have spoken about how they agonised over making such a decision. And yet, as the mysteries of Holy Week show us, our God knows a thing or two about bringing light and life from the sorrows of this world. So let me finish with a few thoughts on how the faithful might approach their present inability to be present at Mass.
The expression “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” can sound like a trite cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason – namely, that it’s often true. A recent survey in the U.S. indicated that up to two-thirds of American Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence—the fundamental Catholic belief that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. In such a context, it’s worth asking ourselves if many in the Church have perhaps been taking the Mass somewhat for granted, and therefore that the present disruptions may have the possibility of rekindling the spark of Eucharistic faith within the Church.
Consider that, for much of the Church’s history, large numbers of Mass-going faithful would not receive the Eucharist each week. And there have likewise been many times when the faithful of various regions have had to go without the Mass for extended periods, during war, or persecution, or because of distance or illness. It’s generally been during such times that the great devotions in our faith have risen to the surface. Novenas, litanies, the rosary form part of the rich tradition of Catholic devotional life, and such forms of prayer could be reclaimed with relish during the present time.
And it should be emphasised, we priests will continue to celebrate Mass privately each day, and through acts of spiritual communion the faithful are able—and indeed encouraged—to unite from afar themselves and their spiritual offerings with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
All the baptised have a share in the priesthood of Christ, and are able to offer sacrifices for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. Well, at this time, many of the faithful are being asked to sacrifice their physical presence at Mass, so as to protect the Body of Christ at large. So when you are following Mass on your TV or device, as the priest raises the Host and says, “This is my Body,” unite your bodies in sacrifice, as you give up your bodily closeness to the Eucharist for the sake of your neighbours.
And nourish your anticipation for that wonderful day when this Eucharistic fast is finally lifted, and the faithful can reunite with joy to celebrate once more our physical and spiritual union with our crucified and risen Lord.
So know that we priests are carrying all of you and your intentions to the altar each day, and pray that this time of physical distance may increase the yearning in our hearts for closeness to the Lord. Be good to each other, pray for each other, and know that our merciful Lord continues to guide and protect us.
Thank you for watching, and until next time, be a saint!
Check out other videos of Fr Mark’s on Chaplain Reflections