Every year, when we begin the season of Lent, we are encouraged to draw closer to God by giving up all our negativity. Just before Ash Wednesday, most of us would have decided to be fully committed during the 40 days of Lent, by getting rid of our bad habits.
When we began Lent this year, our celebrations were dampened with the threat of the Coronavirus (COVID-19. The virus slowed us down and diverted us a little from our focus on Lent. Right now, in Malaysia, new cases are emerging day by day. It is a nationwide threat, so the Churches in Malaysia and Singapore have come out with a few pastoral implications and guidelines to prevent the spreading the COVID-19 virus, by limiting our contact with each other.
On Ash Wednesday, instead of being marked with the blessed ash on our foreheads, it was sprinkled on the crown of our heads. Some may have found it difficult to accept this way of receiving the ash, because they wanted the ashes to be visible to others. Nevertheless, this is how the blessed ashes were also administered in Rome. Apart from that, Holy Water has been removed from all the entrances of the church and Holy Communion is only received by hand. This made a few people feel uncomfortable, as it was different from their traditional practices.
In relation to COVID-19, the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur has also immediately suspended Penitential Services in all churches and Mass centers within the Archdiocese, and the faithful have been advised not to attend Mass if they show signs and symptoms of the virus. Although we have been regularly carrying out our confession these past years during Advent and Lent, this year the changes due to the threat of the virus, has somewhat made it a struggle to find our state of grace. Sin has become habitual and we worry how God is going to free us from sin and lead us into the Paschal Mystery celebration – Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection. If this viral infection prolongs, many might ask the question – will I celebrate Easter worthily and will I receive the mercy of God before the Easter celebration.
I still remember during my first year as a priest, while serving in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the Church faced a similar situation when the SARS-CoV affected many people in 2003. I had encountered an eight-year-old girl who died due to transmission of SARS and I presided at her funeral Mass. SARS was spreading nationwide and it happened during the Lent season too. Even at that time the Church took certain precautions by recommending a few pastoral implications and guidelines. Of course, the older generation was not happy when the Church brought certain restrictions to their traditions and beliefs with regards to not placing Holy Water at the respective church entrances, not shaking hands as the sign of peace, receiving the Holy Communion by hand, etc.
In addition to viruses, we also face a few other challenges in the form of attacks on or criticisms of our faith in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. There were a few movies, documentaries, books, articles, lectures in colleges/universities, which have distorted our faith in Christ Jesus. I remember all these being released or distributed during the season of Lent. These challenges try to shake our faith in Christ by challenging our belief, and I am sure there will be many more issues and circumstances which will give cause to tarnish, bring about confusion and create obstacles for us to practice our faith in Christ.
However, without all these hindrances, obstacles, difficulties, struggles and challenges, our faith would not make sense. Nothing will ever stop us from growing in our faith. When we persevere in faith, we will become more compassionate and stronger in our believe in Christ Jesus. During this time of Lent, be assured that the Lord goes before us. Trust in Him wholeheartedly and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to Him. He will be with you and make your paths straight (cf. Prov 3: 5 & 6). Let’s live our Lent faithfully and fruitfully!
Rev. Fr. George P.