Lent in the time of COVID-19: Attaining holiness in the midst of a pandemic

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On Ash Wednesday, many of us arrived at a crowded parish Mass, our stomachs rumbling from a day of fasting. In the Gospel text from St. Matthew, Our Lord instructed us about the three traditional practices of Lent: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Likely, the homily on this solemn day asked each of us to consider how we might enflesh these practices in our lives. What would we fast from, where would we give our alms, what practices of daily prayer would we perform? We then left our parishes, the smudge of ash still marked on our foreheads, committing ourselves to another Lent.

Less than a month later, things have changed. Most of us are quarantined, not because we ourselves suffer from the illness (at least yet), but in order to protect vulnerable populations from the sickness. The same crowded parishes are empty, public Eucharistic liturgies are likely suspended until well after the celebration of Easter. Many of us who were fasting from technology now spend hours gazing at a screen, immersed in video technologies that allow us to work from home.

Not all of us are so lucky to be able to work from home, to be in the presence of our families. Not all of us even have a job right now, as businesses close, layoffs having already arrived for many of those who worship the living God with us each Sunday. The elderly have been cut off from the very communities that were a lifeline for them, spending hours by themselves in houses without visitors. They miss their grandkids.

Anxiety around the unknown is the very bread we eat right now. How long will we practice this social distancing? How long will our children be out of school? How long will grocery stores have basic supplies? How long can I pay my rent without an income? How long will my parish not offer a public Mass or the sacraments for the benefit of the faithful? How long until our hospital beds are full of the sick and dying? Will I be one of them? Will my family? My neighbor?

There’s a pious, albeit unhelpful temptation, to dismiss this anxiety too quickly. After all, the faithful are those without anxiety, who have no fear. If we trust in God, then everything will be fine no matter what happens. We, the baptized, are destined for life eternal. Whatever happens in the present, whatever suffering presents itself, doesn’t matter.

This narrative, of course, is not entirely wrong. The Christian should have a posture of hope, an awareness that in the risen Lord, the salvation of the world has come. There is a temptation to become addicted to fear, to love the darkness so much that one can no longer recognize the light.

And yet, a facile dismissal of this anxiety is ultimately un-Christian. For the Christian, suffering has not disappeared. Nor can we, as mortal human beings, ignore the sufferings of the present without becoming heartless, creatures bereft of love. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”), “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love” (No. 37).

Lent in the time of COVID-19, therefore, is necessarily connected to the suffering of Jesus Christ. It forces us to reexamine the practices we committed ourselves to, asking ourselves how these practices enable us to unite ourselves to the suffering of Our Lord and thus to the suffering of our neighbor.

In fact, it forces us to reexamine the meaning of Lent as a whole.

The idols we worship

For many, Lent has become exercises for spiritual self-improvement, a committed effort to find the best version of ourselves through fasting, almsgiving and prayer. It often has more in common with a diet than a recommitment to pursue holiness — our baptismal vocation to perfectly conform ourselves to the image of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our individualized program of fasting, almsgiving and prayer will get us into spiritual shape, able to better celebrate the festivities of Easter.

That’s not the orientation of Lent in any year, especially this year. In this Lent (and hopefully future ones), we’ll come to see that the meaning of the traditional practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer is to conform ourselves to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. It is to make of our bodies a living sacrifice to God, as St. Paul exhorts us to do in Romans 12.

Fasting is integral to the Christian life because we human beings construct idols that obstruct us from offering our whole selves back to God. COVID-19 has revealed what some of these idols are. At first, it seemed impossible that we could cancel college and professional sports. The very economy that is crashing has been built on a narrative that human beings are made for infinite consumption and productivity. Many of us, including our politicians, have adored an idol of individualism, that what happens to me (or my family) is really the only thing that matters. That’s why so many people spent the first weekend of COVID-19 quarantine going to restaurants and bars, crowded places: It’s not that bad for me, a young person, so why should I care?

COVID-19 has revealed that all these things are idols. We worship entertainment, and it could still yet kill millions of Americans who are unable to cut themselves off from such entertainment for the common good. We worship the economy, and for that reason, we didn’t want to reveal the true dangers of COVID-19. I worship myself, and therefore, who cares what happens to the rest of you?

Love of neighbor is love of God

This idolatry has done damage to the created order. And this is one of the purposes of almsgiving. It’s not enough to see that we have adored idols; we must give everything back to God through the hands of our neighbor. And so many of our neighbors are in need. Those whose immune systems are threatened are trapped in their homes. Our neighbors are losing their jobs. Our parishes are bereft of food for the hungry. The homeless and prisoners will be especially susceptible to this illness. Much of the undeveloped world, trapped in poverty, without enough health care, will experience death rates far worse than the United States.

If we have extra right now, we must give it all back to God through the hands of our neighbors. Forego that extra 24 pack of toilet paper so that the elderly can have some. Don’t hoard but give. Save money so that you can support your neighbor who will need you. Remember that your neighbor isn’t just someone who looks like you, speaks the same language as you. Your neighbor, which should be clear now more than ever, is every human being. Care for this neighbor, even by just staying home for the immediate future, and you’ll be adoring the living God.

Of course, we do none of these practices on our own. Lent is about conforming ourselves to the suffering love of Jesus Christ. Christ is the Son of the Father, the one who is obedient to the Father’s will even unto death. If we don’t regularly enter a posture of prayer, of adoring love before the face of God, then we’re likely to confuse our practices of fasting and almsgiving as personal victories. Prayer keeps us from this.

Hope awaits

What does it mean to pray with parishes closed, with public Masses canceled, with the public celebration of Easter itself in jeopardy? How do we pray when we’re so anxious, so afraid of a future that we have no control over?

Might I suggest, in the closing days of Lent, likely carrying over into Easter that we immerse ourselves fully in the language of the psalms. Yes, many of us baptized Catholics will go without Eucharistic communion, maybe even confession of our sins for these days. It might be weeks, but it could be much longer.

And yet, we’re not alone. In the psalms, the Lord has given us a way of hearing Christ’s voice even right now, even in our anxiety. The psalms take up the entirety of the human condition. The psalmist cries out in lamentation before God, asking God to intervene in hopeless situations. The psalmist demands that God act just like God has performed wondrous works in the past. The psalmist praises God for the beauty of creation, for the wonder of a God who has entered into a relationship with us.

And yet, there’s even more to the psalms than this. When we Christians pray the psalms, we’re doing so together with Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus himself prayed the psalms, and he still does through the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. When we pray aloud Psalm 63, expressing our desire for God, it’s not our own voice that speaks; it’s Christ’s voice. When we cry out in suffering through the works of the Psalms, it’s Christ’s voice offered to the Father.

The Psalms, therefore, can never be prayed alone (even if we’re praying them in the privacy of our room). It’s the whole Church that is lifted up to God in this prayer. It’s the suffering and joys of our neighbors. And through this prayer, we learn how to assume Christ’s posture of adoring, loving, complete, self-giving obedience to God.

So Lent in the time of COVID-19 isn’t what we expected. But, our expectations were likely part of our idolatry in the first place. Our vocation as Christians is to conform ourselves to Jesus Christ, the one who suffered on the cross. His sacrifice of love was accepted entirely by the Father, and he has been raised from the dead.

Especially in this time of COVID-19, of both forced and voluntary quarantines, of longing for the Eucharist, we can still pursue this holiness. And at the end of this time (however long it is), we may return to our parishes, our workplaces, our towns and cities, and the political arena better able to testify to the reason for our hope in the first place.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

Timothy P. O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.