By Clare Schwantes
Last year, Christian communities in Australia and around the world experienced an unrecognisable Easter. Churches were closed. People were forbidden to gather.
In response, various initiatives were suggested in the hope that people might at least be able to stay connected to their parish church. Perhaps people could come and collect a blessed palm leaf on Palm Sunday from a large basket outside the church? Perhaps they could take a small vial of holy water from the church grounds on Easter Sunday. Each of these suggestions was considered too risky. People were told to stay away.
As Easter approaches in 2021, we are filled with a tentative but joyful sense of hope. While our liturgies will still look a little different to the pre-COVID norms, there is a growing excitement at the thought of being able to celebrate in our parish communities again.
The processes of booking in to attend Mass, sanitising hands and maintaining social distance are now familiar. There are a few issues particular to Holy Week and Easter which will need to be traversed for the first time, but a few small modifications will allow the liturgies to be celebrated in their fullness.
Palm Sunday - In many parishes, the assembly gathers outside the church door and processes into the liturgical space carrying palms. People may take a palm branch from a common basket this year, but it is still necessary to promote suitable distancing when people process into the church. This becomes difficult if doorways are narrow and the assembled community is trying to move in at once. A simple instruction at the beginning of the liturgy could remind people to take their time processing into the church with assurances that the presider will wait until everyone is inside before beginning. A simpler alternative is the option given in the Missal for the blessing of palms inside the church with no procession.
Holy Thursday - Washing of the feet is permitted on Holy Thursday, provided that those having their feet washed are seated with suitable distancing. There is no requirement in the rite that there be 12 people. A separate towel for each person would be best. Ministers should sanitise their hands after the washing is complete.
Good Friday - At the Veneration of the Cross, people may bow or genuflect, but should not touch or kiss the cross. It would be best to position the cross where people cannot get close enough to touch it.
Easter Vigil - Where the assembly gathers outside around a bonfire and then processes into the church holding candles, the same issue of social distancing at doorways applies. One would hope that people carrying candles might naturally distance themselves from others in any case!
Baptism by immersion cannot take place this year, and water poured over one person’s head cannot be reused for a subsequent baptism. Perhaps a large jug could be filled, and only a portion of it poured over each person. Alternatively, several small vessels could be filled with water. The font should be emptied immediately.
Anointing with oil is also possible, but the minister should sanitise his fingers with an antiseptic wipe between each candidate. Of course, it is entirely possible (and to be encouraged!) to sprinkle the assembly with water at the Easter Masses.
Having been deprived of the Easter liturgies last year, there is a palpable sense of joyful anticipation as we await the celebration of Easter 2021. The familiar ritual actions of the Triduum will no doubt be celebrated with a new and profound gratitude for the sheer privilege of being able to gather together as the Body of Christ.
Clare Schwantes is the Editor of Liturgy Brisbane; Chair of the National Liturgical Council; and Secretary of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Commission on the Liturgy.