Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
“O God, who in this season give your Church the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ, grant, we pray, through her intercession, that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace.”
—Collect for the Mass of Friday in the Fifth Week of Lent
“Come again?” you say. “With churches closed? With no Masses open to the public? With confessions hard to find? With no Holy Thursday, no Good Friday, no Easter Vigil? With no Masses on Easter Sunday? Surely, it will be the worst Holy Week and saddest Easter ever.”
On the contrary, I say. By Mary’s intercession we will “cling more firmly” to Jesus and receive the “fullness of his grace.” She will have us join her contemplation of the deep motives of her son as he undergoes his sorrowful Passion. These two weeks are called “Passiontide”—let’s find out why.
Right before his Passion, Jesus raised St. Lazarus, whom he especially loved, from the dead. He was intent on doing this. Consider for a moment how intensely Our Lord awaited the instant of his own saving death. And why? Because at that moment, not even waiting for his full resurrection from the tomb, his all-holy and loving soul united to his Godhead descended among the dead, and by his own power he drew out of their limbo of patient waiting the just who had died since Adam.
Imagine the meeting with St. Joseph, with St. John the Baptist, with the Good Thief, with all the prophets and patriarchs back to their first mother Eve; with all the innumerable elect souls who were all at once set free! He gave them what he had longed to give them: salvation, that is, the blessed vision of his face and of the Father and the Holy Spirit!
Our Lord longed to descend among the dead; he longs still to raise the dead, always to give us poor sinners the vision of blessedness. That is what drove him through his Passion. He endured the cross, St. Paul says, “for the joy that was set before him”—the joy of sharing his eternal joy with us.
We can spend these last days before Easter having “the mind of Christ,” sharing in his intention as he underwent all he had to and as he established his Church by his saving death and the sacraments that unite us to it. That means we too can descend among the dead as we profess he did in the creed. We can set them free so that they celebrate Easter not in expectation but in the height of heaven.
We may not be able to go to Mass, or adore the cross, or visit the altar of repose, or walk with our blessed palms, but we can think of our dear dead and descend among them daily and indeed many times a day. Then we will celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection as he did, with his immediate and burning desire of doing what he wanted to do first and above all else: to bestow the fullness of life on those in the tombs.
Mary’s life had superabundant value to make up for faults and to obtain life for sinners, and so did the whole company of saints. Of course they had superabundant merit, because they were united to Christ, whose merits and love are infinite. But he wanted human beings, starting with Mary, to share in his work personally. So, united with him, their prayers, works of mercy, and penances all had atoning value. What is more, they could give away the value of their loving satisfaction to those who had died, to pay the debt of their sins and to speed their way to heaven.
We now have access to these superabundant (more than enough for all) merits and satisfactions of Christ, Our Lady, and the saints through the practice of gaining indulgences for the faithful departed. Think of the enormous number of souls who are being purified before their entry into the fullness of life. We can speed their way to heaven where they can pray for us, and gain for us a happy, holy Easter. Then our intention will be like that of Jesus himself, giving more than receiving for the good of souls.
What can we do? First, we should be in the state of grace. If we need to go to confession but can’t get there, we can make an act of perfect contrition. This just means that we tell God sincerely that we are sorry for our sins because he is so loving and because we love him, and that we will go to confession when we are able to. Then we can gain many partial indulgences for the dead by simply doing some of the following things:
- Any prayer offered up in the course of the day’s work, even just the name of Jesus said devoutly.
- Any work of mercy performed for someone in need, and there are many of these!
- Any denying ourselves, in a spirit of penance, something we are allowed to have, such in food, drink, or other comforts.
- Any public witness to the Faith, such as making the sign of the cross before beginning a task or wearing a cross or other holy medal—or even a tee shirt with a devout message!
There are plenary (complete) indulgences given by the Holy Father in this time of plague, like praying the rosary, the chaplet of Divine Mercy, or the stations of the Cross, or reading the scriptures for half an hour, but for these the normal conditions for receiving the indulgence may not apply in today’s circumstances, when it might be hard to get to communion or confession. Just add at least an Our Father and Hail Mary for the pope’s intentions.
With these greater indulgences and with the four general grants given before them, we could be constantly bringing souls to heaven, just by doing the things that we are already supposed to do as Christians anyway. That is why the Church gives us this extra motive, to teach us to live good lives and to love our neighbor by works of prayer, mercy, and penance.
This is Mary’s plan for your best Easter ever: for you to give numerous souls beyond their best Easter ever, even the happiness of heaven!