Holy Week 2020: grace was in the yearning

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Photo by Patrick Goodman

This past Holy Week, you might have found yourself staring at a screen, trying to enter into prayer with a priest who occasionally froze when your WiFi connection faltered. 

Catholics around the world tried to make it sacred. We dressed up for Masses, lit a candle and maybe even tried making unleavened bread on Holy Thursday. The domestic church raised a powerful cry: now is the time for solidarity in our home and in the Church. 

Although we did the best we could, we were left with a lingering sense of incompleteness. Ritual is built into our nature as Catholics, and Holy Week is the summit of ritual in our liturgical year. Ritual is comforting and important. 

But ritual did not sanctify Holy Week this year. Instead, I think that our unrealized yearning for the rituals and sacraments of Holy Week itself bestowed the graces of Holy Week upon us. 

God has a history of sanctifying by desire. When the Israelites were not ready to enter the Promised Land, God let them wander in the desert. Only when spiritual and physical thirst became habitual did they finally enter the land of milk and honey. 

Their 40 years in the desert exemplifies the relationship of the chosen people to God. It is a relationship always characterized by yearning: for liberation from Egypt, for the promised land and for the savior of the world. 

Yearning for God is an important part of our Judeo-Christian inheritance that we often disregard, leading to Christian apathy and, counterintuitively, insecurity as we find ourselves yearning for God nonetheless. 

It seems all too obvious to say that we will never arrive at Heaven if we do not desire it. Respecting our free will, God gives us the fruits of our desires. The more we desire God, the more we can receive Him. God knows that desire stretches us out like a balloon, and thus God can fill us up even more with Himself precisely when we desire Him more. Thus arises the paradox that characterizes the spiritual dryness of the greatest saints: by withholding His presence, God can give of Himself more fully.

“I thirst,” Jesus spoke from the cross, inviting us to unite our yearning for God with Christ’s own yearning for our love. Without this thirst, our relationship with God would be stagnant and even inhuman. 

This Holy Week, perhaps God wanted us to lean into that thirstiness, to sanctify us by yearning for Him. Although we may feel a small sense of satisfaction in the little triumphs in our domestic churches in the way we celebrated Holy Week in our homes, we shouldn’t let that little satisfaction undermine our still unsatisfied yearning. Nothing can sanctify Holy Week like simply admitting that we miss church.

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