In Christendom, the preparation for Easter celebrations, which begins with the Palm Sunday, is the most elaborate and most enjoyable of all the Christian festivals.
Palm Sunday marks the triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, as a prelude to His trial, suffering and crucifixion on the Cross, death and resurrection, three days later.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode on a donkey, a symbol of peace. People lined up the streets, spread out their garments, cut out tree branches, palm leaves, and sang: “Hosanna to the Son of David”.
Palm Sunday ushers in the Holy Week, a week of elaborate church activities, particularly on the three days preceding Easter Sunday, which are called Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. These three days are known as the Easter Triduum.
On Maundy Thursday, liturgical services are held, beginning with the Chrism Mass in the morning, where holy oils are blessed and all priests in the diocese made to renew their priestly vows.
In the evening, the Lord’s Super or the institution of the Blessed Eucharist, is celebrated, followed by the washing of the feet of some worshippers, as Jesus Christ did with his disciples, to symbolize humility and service.
On Good Friday, Stations of the Cross are held, followed by a recap of the passion and death of Jesus Christ on the Cross as recorded in the Bible, then intercessory prayers, and kissing of the Cross by the faithful.
On Holy Saturday or Easter vigil, the Church waits at the tomb of Jesus Christ in prayers and fasting, meditating on his passion and death on the Cross. It is a long dark night, which will later be shattered or broken by the Light of Christ, Lumen Christi, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ Himself on Easter Sunday.
All these beautiful ceremonies and many more, we would be missing in this year Easter Triduum, because we no longer go to Church. We were told to stay away from gathering together, including going to Church, to maintain social distancing, in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
As a result, we did not physically participate in the Lord’s Super, nor received Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist. There was no washing of feet by the Priest, as Jesus Christ did. We would not kiss the Cross, not in betrayal as Judas Iscariot did, but as affirmation of our faith in the Cross as instrument of salvation. We would not participate in lighting the Paschal Candle, etc. All these, because of coronavirus.
But this is not the first time that the Church would be closing her doors, or had suspended Holy Mass. It had happened before, as recorded by historians.
In 1575, when plague hit Milan, in Italy, the Archbishop, St. Charles Borromeo, closed the churches, but built altars outside different churches so that people could still participate in the Mass from the windows of their houses while the priests celebrated on altars built outside the Churches.
Again, between 1918 and 1920, when there was the Spanish Flu, which affected about 500 million all over the world and killed over 50 million, about 300,000 of them in Southern Nigeria alone, churches and schools were equally closed, but the Church, as the people of God, did not close.
Even during our own Nigeria-Biafra war, Church services were sparingly held. It was a period of emergency, and not many people had the opportunity to attend Masses, nor was there enough priests to attend to the spiritual needs of the people.
The word “Church”, as we know, does not constitute physical structures, or buildings, but constitutes the people of God, the living individuals. This means that though, the Church as a physical structure may close, but the Church, as the people of God, will never close. We are the Church, and we will continue to worship God in spirit and in truth.
That notwithstanding, with the advance in technology, distances are no longer barrier, in seminars, conferences, and even in the worship of God. Apart from private prayers in our inner Chambers, so far, we have been able to fully participate in this year’s Easter Triduum, beginning from the Palm Sunday celebration, sitting in our rooms, as were relayed to us through the television.