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What Does Good Friday Mean In Time Of Covid-19?

The Rev. James Martin is the Jesuit priest and best-selling author who is known to many as Stephen Colbert’s chaplain. He lives in community with 12 other members of his order. During this time of the Covid-19 crisis, he and his community are praying and celebrating mass in their small chapel, even as the ambulance sirens announce the arrival of new patients at the Mount Sinai Hospital that is right next door.

I spoke to Father Martin over the phone on Palm Sunday about the particular resonance of Holy Week even as we enter the most devastating time of the pandemic for Americans.

Q. I remember you invited me to give one of the seven last words at your Church, St. Ignatius, for Good Friday several years ago. What are you doing this year, and do you have a particular message you will be sharing?

A. We will have mass in the community, and I will also be following livestream mass from St. Ignatius. My message for Good Friday is to focus on how Jesus offers his body up for us on the cross, and it makes me think about how, during this crisis, it is physicians, nurses, delivery people and others who are offering their bodies for the salvation of others. They are like Jesus Christ – showing the generosity and love and care that Jesus had for us.

When I hear the words, “Take and eat, this is my body” it is not just that Jesus offers his body in the Eucharist, but also during his life, Jesus took his body all over Judaea and healed people and showed them love and care. Today, it is our friends, loved ones, neighbors who are essential workers who are saying, “This is my body – here I am’”

Q. What does it mean to celebrate Easter and the resurrection in this time?

A. It means more than in other years, because people are so desperate for signs of new life. For Christians, we believe Jesus offers us new life in two ways: eternal life when we die; but also signs of life in the everyday world. This year we see people are doing so much good in the world. They, we, are signs of life even in midst of death.

Look at Jesus’ disciples after the crucifixion. They were quarantined, refusing to go outside, unable to see anything good in the future. We have to put ourselves in their position and remember they were surprised. That said, we cannot ignore the real suffering that is happening in our world. Jesus’ wounds were real. However, the fundamental faith of the Christian is that hope is stronger than despair, love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death and nothing is impossible with God.

Q. You speak at a lot of colleges and universities, what message do you have for students, staff and faculty who are feeling the loss of their community?

A. My nephew is a college senior and his year ended abruptly. It’s a crushing blow to the end of the college as well as to the prospect of a career. There is a great deal of grief at not being able to have a graduation or being able to say goodbye to friends. My advice is that it is important to admit the sadness, yet also to find what Pope Francis called ‘creative ways of loving’ your friends and letting them know what they mean to you.

Q. Each day at 3pm Eastern you are offering a reflection on a Gospel reading via Livestream. Tell me about that and how people are responding.

A. What I have seen most is the tremendous longing for community. Within a minute, over 1,000 viewers have joined to be together. People are asking for prayers for friends, for medical professionals they know. All of them are seeking meaning right now - especially in Holy Week.

One other thought—I think sometimes, on Good Friday, we meditate on Christ’s suffering; but I think this Good Friday, we are inviting Jesus into ours. Christ comes to accompany us in our suffering and we in his.

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