Palm, Cross and COVID-19

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight delivered the following homily on April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, at The Cathedral of St. Joseph, Jefferson City:

Today’s liturgy contains a huge contrast. We began with the triumphal entry of Jesus on a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem, and we joined the adulation of the crowds in proclaiming “Hosanna” while waving palms in his honor.  And then, suddenly, the mood darkened. We heard the reading about the suffering servant from the Prophet Isaiah. We heard how Christ emptied himself, accepting death on a cross, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. And then we participated actively in the proclamation of the Passion according to St. Matthew. The joys and exultations at the beginning of Mass were replaced by our own cries of “Let him be crucified!”  On the back of a donkey, Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem with the red carpet rolled out for him in the form of coats and branches strewn on the path before him.  And on the back of Jesus, the King of the Jews carried the wood of his cross out of the Jerusalem gates to Golgotha to be executed as a criminal of church and state.   

We really are thrown by the liturgy. Is this a triumphal celebration or a remembrance of the Cross? The Church catches this contrast even in its naming of the day. It is no longer just “Palm Sunday.” Nor is it “Passion Sunday.” No, the proper name of today’s celebration is Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Today, exaltation and suffering are intertwined.  The very body of Christ that was at once honored and adored, was later spat upon, bruised, beaten, lashed, scorned, and crucified.  And so it is with the Body of Christ, that is the Church.  Doing what is right and good does not always bring the praise and honor of the crowd of popular opinion.  When we stand up for the innocent and suffering, we are guaranteed in this world to suffer the Passion of the Christ.  But the message of the whole Gospel is this: that only when we empty ourselves to share in the suffering of Christ in our very lives, do we come to share with him in the resurrection that we call eternal life.  And when we share in the sufferings of Christ, we are not alone, but belong to the Body of Christ that is the Church.  We are blessed by sharing in this sacred communion.

In this time of pandemic, we can see more clearly the relationship between suffering and the resurrection. 

I have been monitoring the rapid growth of COVID-19 infections in our home state, our country, and throughout the world, by watching a map of the spread of the virus provided by Johns Hopkins University on the internet.  The map reminds me of a virus attacking an individual body: our bodies become infected at an initial point (usually the eyes, nose or mouth).  But the virus doesn’t stop there; no, it travels throughout the whole body in search of the particular kind of tissue it is genetically programmed to attack.  But as soon as the coronavirus begins wreaking havoc on the sensitive tissues of the lungs and respiratory tract, the entire human body usually launches a whole series of defensive actions to protect itself: fever, coughing, sneezing, and the desire for lots of rest.  This is the way the whole body fights a tiny virus that is attacking only one part.  And so it is with our human society in battling this pandemic.

All the protocols recommended and now required by the U.S. and the state of Missouri are designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 through social isolation and the frequent washing of our hands.   People are, hopefully, staying home and limiting their ventures out into the world for the necessities of work, food, and healthcare.  We choose to refrain from other social events and activities because we have to respond as one body to fight this pandemic.  And by accepting these sufferings for the sake of the common good, which are much more than an inconvenience to those who have lost their jobs, their ability to visit families and close friends in the hospitals or nursing homes, we share in a real way in the sufferings of Christ in his Passion.  We are no mere spectators at this drama of Christ’s death and resurrection.  No, we are given the opportunity, here and now, in the middle of this pandemic, to suffer so that others may live.

In the face of this worldwide contagion that affects us all, bishops here in the United States and throughout the world have been forced to temporarily suspend public worship and the celebration of the sacraments.  This Holy Week will be different.  Our churches services may be closed to the public, but Christ is not quarantined and his Gospel is not in chains.  Our Lord’s heart remains open to every man and woman.  Even though we cannot worship together in person, we can seek him in the tabernacles of our own hearts. 

My brother bishops and I are painfully aware that many of our Catholic people are troubled and hurt by the loss of the Eucharist and the consolation of the sacraments.  This is a bitter affliction that we all feel deeply.  We ache with our people and we long for the day when we can be reunited around the altar of the Lord to celebrate the sacred mysteries.  In this difficult moment, we ask God for his grace, that we might bear this burden together with patience and charity, united as one family of God in his universal Church. 

Therefore, on Good Friday at 11 am in this cathedral, I will pray the Litany of the Sacred Heart along with my brother bishops throughout the United States, for an end to the pandemic.  I ask you to join me in this prayer, which will be livestreamed as well as all the other services of Holy Week.  And please note, that the Holy Father has granted a special plenary indulgence to those who pray for an end to this pandemic.  To receive this indulgence, you need to pray the Litany of the Sacred Heart on Good Friday, be truly sorry for your sins and desire to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation as soon as it is possible, and you need to pray for the intentions of the Pope.

In the heart of Jesus, pierced as he hung on the cross on Good Friday, we see the love of God for humanity, his love for each one of us. 

May this be a holy week for you and your families. And may the Immaculate Heart of Mary, our Patroness, intercede for us so that we all shall together make the passion and death of the Lord our own.