Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily March 28.
Last year on Palm Sunday, I delivered a homily that none of you heard unless you participated in that Mass virtually on the internet, because the public celebration of Mass had been suspended temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In that homily, I reflected on Blessed Stanley Rother’s return to Guatemala on Palm Sunday weekend 40 years ago. He had taken refuge in Oklahoma in January because his life was in immediate danger but couldn’t stay away because, as he said, “The shepherd cannot run when the wolf threatens his flock.” I also noted that he took precautions in an attempt to make sure that his very presence did not put the flock in greater danger, them being caught up as collateral victims of whatever harm the persecutors planned to do to him.
His two months back in Oklahoma was his own personal Agony in the Garden, during which he thought through all of this, praying in effect, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” And so Father Rother returned for Holy Week, uniting what turned out to be his own approaching passion and death to that of Jesus in the liturgical celebration of Holy Week. It is significant to notice that during Holy Week there in 1981 attendance at Mass in Santiago Atitlán was much less than usual. The Church may have been virtually empty. People were afraid, people were disappearing and the words of Jesus from the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me” resonated deeply with their own experience of feeling threatened and helpless.
And isn’t that how we feel today as well? The COVID-19 pandemic has left us feeling threatened and helpless for over a year now. Thanks be to God the danger has lessened now that we have vaccinations; last year our churches were virtually empty too. But unlike Jesus’ disciples in today’s Gospel who, by abandoning Jesus, could flee the danger, for much of last year there was nowhere for us to go. We took steps to reduce the risk, suspending Mass for six weeks and canceling all in-person meetings. And then this was followed by a cautious partial reopening with mandatory mask-wearing and physical distancing, etc. -- like Father Rother, who changed the locks and canceled parish meetings in order to protect himself and his parishioners.
And yet access to God was not cut off, any more than it was cut off that fateful Friday in which direct access to Jesus was cut off through his death. That week began with palms raised high to acclaim the arrival in Jerusalem of our Savior and continued on Thursday with the first Passover meal of the New Covenant and then on Friday, the crisis hit. The Lord was taken from us 2,000 years ago, physically; this last year, sacramentally in response to a very different threat. But in both cases, as it turns out, only temporarily. Two thousand years ago, the disciples thought that the separation was going to be permanent, but it only lasted three days. Jesus had tried to prepare them, but how do you prepare someone for something like this?
In our case, we knew that the separation was going to be just temporary. It lasted six weeks. But how do you prepare someone for something like the COVID-19 threat? It came to us from nowhere. The answer is, “you don’t,” you can’t. But what we could do was take prudent precautions and then put our trust in the Lord. Just like 2,000 years ago, the victory has already been won. The disciples couldn’t see it at the time, and we ourselves still don’t know how this is all going to unfold, with all the variant mutations that keep popping up or, for that matter, any other adversities in our life. But what we do know is that God uses adversity to save us, to draw us to himself and to teach us to place our trust in him.
So today, we lift up to the Lord ourselves and all of those people who are living in fear throughout the world, especially those who are suffering and dying unaccompanied. Jesus at least was accompanied by John, his mother and a few women, and even so, he felt forsaken. You and I are not forsaken; our Savior is with us and so we place our trust in him.
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