About disappointment and death (COVID-19)

A homily for Palm Sunday

A wise lady who taught Sunday School at St. James’s, Congleton once said to me in a reflective moment that the one thing children are no longer taught to deal with is disappointment. She suggested that too often they were given everything they wanted and so were unable to adapt their expectations and cope when they didn’t receive everything their hearts desired. She also noted that adult life is full of disappointments and that children needed to be ready for it. My friend’s observations were quite correct and provide a useful introduction to the events of Holy Week and also to the crises which come to us during life.

Sometimes the disappointments that we face are slight, no more than an occasional anti-climax: the favourite football team gets knocked out of the cup (again) or we are unable to keep a long-awaited engagement with family or friends. The list is endless. There will inevitably be more serious set-backs: a poor grade in an examination, a job interview that goes wrong, a relationship that fails. Some of these things may be life-changing and we may feel, rightly or wrongly, that they end up defining us.

As Holy Week progresses there is an opportunity to think prayerfully about the expectations of Jesus’ disciples and those of the others in the crowds which followed him. Peter had famously declared Jesus to be the Messiah. He had also asked what was in it for himself.

Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (Matthew 19:27)

If that verse came to Peter’s mind at all during these days he might well have wondered whether there was going to be anything in it for him at all. He, and many others, might have questioned whether they had backed the right man as Messiah. Was this going to be the greatest disappointment of their lives – one which might in the very near future cost them their lives?

Throughout Holy Week the disciples had ample opportunity to reflect upon the direction their lives were taking, and from Jesus’ arrest on Maundy Thursday upon death and its meaning. We are used to joining them liturgically, but there are times in our lives when we have to think about our own mortality, whether it be the result of age, accident or illness. People prefer not to think about death and may pretend that it is never going to happen, but it does and it will.

There may also be disappointment involved too. In the developed world people are living for longer and longer. More and more diseases can be cured; many medical conditions can be managed. It seems that the psalmist’s ‘threescore years and ten’ or even his ‘fourscore’ are an underestimate now as many live on into their nineties and make a century. But what if this doesn’t happen? What if life is cut short? This is a reality for myriad souls in the developing world, but present worries about viral infection lead inevitably to more serious thoughts of mortality here. What if this time it will be me…or you?

In God’s eyes it is always the time to prepare for death. Today that is counter-cultural although our forefathers were well versed in the idea. In the Litany is found the petition that we might be preserved from ‘sudden death’ (or in modern alternatives, ‘dying unprepared’). The service of the Visitation of the Sick provides ample opportunity for a preparation for death. Importantly the prayers in the service put God at the centre of the exercise. They speak of the providence of God, the reality of human weakness, the need for repentance and of the certainty of death even if there may yet be many years of life remaining. The exhortation in the service reads as follows:

Dearly beloved, know this, that Almighty God is the Lord of life and death, and of all things to them pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness. Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly, that it is God's visitation. And for what cause soever this sickness is sent unto you; whether it be to try your patience, for the example of others, and that your faith may be found in the day of the Lord laudable, glorious, and honourable, to the increase of glory and endless felicity; or else it be sent unto you to correct and amend in you whatsoever doth offend the eyes of your heavenly Father; know you certainly, that if you truly repent you of your sins, and bear your sickness patiently, trusting in God's mercy for his dear Son Jesus Christ's sake, and render unto him humble thanks for his fatherly visitation, submitting yourself wholly unto his will, it shall turn to your profit, and help you forward in the right way that leadeth unto everlasting life.

The words are uncompromising, but clearly and definitively put God at the centre of all human experience, at the centre of life and at the centre of death.

St. Bernadette said that one thing was necessary, ‘penitence, penitence, penitence’: that constant offering of the self to God to be purified and re-made in the image of Christ. This is what gives God’s people a hope which is based on faith. Sometimes faith and hope are hard-won. That was certainly true of St. Peter who denied Jesus and of the other disciples who abandoned him. What they learned in their suffering, even through their sense of abandonment, is that God is at the centre of all things and that primarily he is found in the life and death of Jesus.

In Holy Week there is a spiritual battle going on even if the more obvious manifestations are the increasingly physical conflicts between Jesus and the authorities. The devil is doing his best to tempt Jesus away from that perfect obedience to which he is called, to accept something less than the best and to make an incomplete and defective offering to the Father. It is a spiritual battle that sensitive souls will recognise and will embrace in their own lives – even if a little unwillingly – having recognised the call of the Lord and taken the ‘whole armour of God’ of which St. Paul writes. (Ephesians 6: 10-19).

The battle is not confined to Holy Week or to a liturgical remembrance of it. The battle is joined in every life that is lived and in every age. Disappointments present themselves and tragedies occur, but the faithful are called to be fervent in prayer and remain strong in the Lord. In this we are given a glimpse of all that God can do as we are reminded that the whole creation is his and that his loving purposes will triumph, fulfilling the Easter hope and filling all Jesus’ disciples from every age and place with joy.

In the meantime let us offer our prayers for protection from present evils and everlasting death. As the anthem below attests, we are in good company.

Salve Regina

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy; Hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

V:/ Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God

R:/ That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray.

Almighty, everlasting God, who, by the co-operation of the Holy Spirit, didst prepare the body and soul of the glorious Virgin Mary to become a dwelling-place meet for thy Son: grant that, as we rejoice in her commemoration, so by her loving intercession, we may be delivered from present evils and from the everlasting death. Amen.

Father Andrew Burton SSC

Palm Sunday 2020