Holy Week is Upon Us, and I Have Coronavirus

As a deacon, I’m supposed to be a servant. I find myself in the position of being unable to serve others, and, indeed, relying on others to serve me.

A view of the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica prepared for the Palm Sunday vigil on April 4, 2020, in Vatican City. Pope Francis will celebrate the Palm Sunday Mass in an empty basilica. Yesterday the Pontiff sent a video message as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Holy Week in an unusual manner due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
A view of the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica prepared for the Palm Sunday vigil on April 4, 2020, in Vatican City. Pope Francis will celebrate the Palm Sunday Mass in an empty basilica. Yesterday the Pontiff sent a video message as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Holy Week in an unusual manner due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (photo: Getty Images)

When the nurse practitioner said, “Your test was positive,” I almost involuntarily burst out, “Oh, thank goodness.”

I had been fearing a negative result for days.

I wouldn’t have trusted it, for one thing — I was pretty sure I had COVID, and that my lady Suzanne did as well, along with at least half of our kids. (I now think all six who are currently living here got it to one degree or another.)

A negative result probably would have been a false negative. Probably being the operative word. But how could I possibly have known?

We had been so careful since the beginning of this thing — staying home as much as possible, enforcing regular handwashing, trying to avoid touching our faces. Starting the first week of March, I began working from home, well before my employer officially started urging employees who could to do so.

Suz is a registered nurse and already trained never to touch her face unless she’s just washed her hands. Her attitude is that the whole world is dirty and you just have to assume the moment you set foot outside the house that your hands are dirty too — which isn’t something to freak out about, but it does mean never touching your face. She’s always Purelling the kids’ hands (“I was using Purell at the playground before it was cool,” she recently joked on Facebook).

All of which, it seems, was too late. The fix was in, I suspect, just before things got bad and we started really clamping down, when one of our kids went on an out-of-state trip. Well, that’s what you get with a 14-day incubation period.

The last Sunday we had public Masses in our archdiocese, I did something I’d seldom if ever before: I washed my hands not just immediately before Mass, but also immediately afterward. I also tried throughout Mass to be conscious how I was using my right hand, to avoid touching anything (the sacristy door handle, etc.) that might be contaminated.

I’ve never Purelled my hands right before communion (I know that’s almost a quasi-liturgical rite in some parishes, but we’ve never done it at St. John’s), but I made a mental note to have Purell for the following Sunday. I didn’t foresee, of course, that there wouldn’t be a “following Sunday” in the sense that I imagined.

Watching the cascading consequences of this thing has been an education.

Early in March, bringing communion to the elderly residents of a nearby assisted living facility, I found myself thinking, I mustn’t get COVID — it would kill these people! Later in the week it hit me: Oh. I’m not going to be able to continue bringing communion in any case, am I.

The first week Mass was canceled, we had been slated to sing Ah, Holy Jesus. I love and dread that hymn every year — I can’t sing it at all; it wrecks me every time.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered
The slave hath sinnéd and the Son hath suffered
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth
God intercedeth.

The day after that they locked down the nursing homes and hospitals. The residents at the assisted living facility we visited stay in their rooms all the time now, which is heartbreaking, especially for those who are confused and can’t understand. It’s not just communion they’re missing — Suz and the kids came with me and we visited with a lot of them, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish. Now they’re all alone all the time.

The next blow was realizing that we wouldn’t get back to church by Holy Week.

For the first time in years, I wouldn’t be singing the Good Friday solemn intercessions, with their ringing refrain, “Let us kneel! Let us stand!”

Worse, I wouldn’t be singing the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil.

I look forward all year to the Exsultet; it’s the high point of the whole year for a deacon. It’s such a beautiful, expressive prayer.

O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

It was a week ago that the first symptoms hit me.

Friday night I found myself feeling rundown, with perhaps a bit of tightness in my chest. Saturday I was coughing a bit and having definite shortness of breath. That night Suz diagnosed me with a low-grade fever.

Still, I wasn’t too worried — especially when Sunday rolled around and I discovered that I was feeling better on all fronts. Well, I’m basically healthy, I thought, so this is likely to be quite mild for me.

It was disappointing, of course, to have gotten sick, as hard as I’d tried to avoid it. Among other things, I would have to cancel my platelet donation on Tuesday — part of my Lenten routine (a form of almsgiving, I like to think).

That night Suz got sick too. She was awake for hours that night, with fever and muscle ache — and of course you can’t take ibuprofen with this thing, so Tylenol was all she had.

On Monday morning I started my working-from-home routine as usual. By mid-morning, though, I realized that the pendulum was swinging the other way, and I took the rest of the day off.

Every hour of that horrible day, I felt worse. By evening I was so weak I could barely whisper.

I did manage, though, to call my doctor’s office that afternoon, and make a Tuesday appointment for a COVID test. It was a half-hour drive to Morristown Medical Center, and by Monday evening I was thinking my son would have to drive me, but on Tuesday I felt better and drove myself.

Unfortunately, that was also the night Suz got really sick. Luckily the three teenagers all seemed healthy, and were able to do whatever needed to be done. (No one in our household has gone unscathed, but it’s been far milder for most than for Suz and me.)

The testing process was very smoothly handled. I never got out of my car, and only rolled down my car window for a few seconds while a nurse in formidable protective gear took a nasal swab, which wasn’t nearly as invasive or unpleasant as I was led to believe. The whole process took less than 10 minutes. After that it was just a matter of waiting.

I knew that false negatives weren’t uncommon, and that worried me. I wanted not just the confirmation that we had it, but the confidence of knowing after recovering that we would be immune.

So the news that the test was positive came as a relief.

It’s been up and down since then. I’ll feel better in the morning and then worse in the evening. Suz seemed fine on Wednesday and then bad again on Thursday. Today she seems fine but she also noticed that strange symptom, anosmia — loss of sense of smell — that for some people is an early warning sign.

Meanwhile, Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, is upon us. What can we do with this sacred time while we are bereft of the normal means of marking and celebrating it?

The first thing that occurs to me is that this strange Holy Week is a privileged time of spiritual solidarity with Christians throughout the centuries who have been deprived of the liturgy and the sacraments for months or years at a time.

Christians in unfriendly lands, living under persecution, imprisoned or exiled. Soldiers on the field of battle. Patients in hospitals and ICUs. Shut-ins, forgotten and neglected.

The Lord hasn’t forgotten any of them. And he hasn’t forgotten us. He hasn’t forgotten me.

No Good Friday service, however somber, will ever feel as much like a crucifixion to me as this empty Good Friday in my home.

If I am to “praise the Lord with greater joy than ever” this Easter Triduum, it will only be with the joy supplied by the Lord himself immediately and directly, without the normal liturgical accoutrements: the darkened church, the long cycle of Old Testament readings, the ringing bells at the Gloria, and so forth.

We will keep up our Lenten and Holy Week family devotions. Every evening we will continue our Bible reading from Mark’s Gospel (I like to read the Gospel one step ahead of the ABC cycle, on the theory that it’s the one the kids haven’t heard in the longest time) and continue to affix felt symbols to our Lenten branch (a Lenten version of the Advent “Jesse tree”).

We’ll continue to sing hymns, of course. We’ll keep praying the rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, and our family Jesus Prayer chaplet.

Of course we’ll watch liturgical livestreams. It’s nothing like being there, of course, but it’s better than nothing.

Above all, I want to offer up the privations of this week for the many whose trials are far greater than my own. I’m sure our kids will always remember this strange Holy Week; that in itself makes it special in a way. I want to be attentive to what God will do in our lives this week.

Of course I want to live in gratitude for his enormous blessings, especially in the overwhelming outpouring of love, support, and prayers from people far and near — friends, family, readers, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and others.

I’m grateful for all of this, and if the reader of these words says a prayer for me, I appreciate it — and know that I, too, am praying for all of you.

But I also want to pray for the people who need it much more than I do, and to encourage others to look out for those in greater need than I am.

We have good friends and family who are taking care of us right now, delivering groceries and hot meals. What about all the people who can’t say that?

I’ve got a day job that allows me to work at home. I have no special worries about losing my job or paying my bills. What about all the people who can’t say that?

As a deacon, I’m supposed to be a servant. I find myself in the position of being unable to serve others, and, indeed, relying on others to serve me.

This is God’s will, so I have no choice but to accept it. Those of you who are in a position to do so — look around you for those who, like me, have no choice but to rely on others, and who might not have as much support as we have.

Can you be a part of what God is doing for someone else this Holy Week?