When a deadly plague menaces his kingdom, Prince Prospero (in Edgar Allen Poe’s macabre tale The Masque of the Red Death) makes a startling decision. He has supreme power and, therefore, closes his palace, bars the gates, and allows no one to enter or exit, sealing out Death. Simple. Prospero and his courtiers can revel in safety, and Death cannot gain access.
Until it does. Death arrives, an uninvited guest at the Prince’s exclusive soirée, and all the revelers, including the Prince himself, are left lifeless, powerless to protect themselves from this Intruder.
And we, in our modern lockdowns, with our sealed-off buildings and “essential” persons lists, are not much different from the Prince and his folly. Worse, because in trying to seal out Death from our society, we have also shut out Life.
I am blessed to be allowed within the walls of a local Assisted Living community. It’s well-managed and has survived the latest health crisis with no significant outbreak. A triumph for the elderly and a joy for every resident. But as nobody is allowed in and nobody is allowed out – not the FedEx man, not friends and family, not even the priest – access has been blocked to Christ Himself.
Christ used to be welcomed every week, and the Catholic residents cherished Mass together. During the lockdown, however, stricter in such care homes than perhaps anywhere in the country, the priest was no longer allowed. Joining together in a small group to pray was not allowed. And the residents slowly accepted their new reality: Mass only on TV, alone, in their rooms.
Months passed. Easter came and went, and the summer sweltered. Fall came, Christmas went by without family visits, and the residents showed uncanny resilience and resolve. Many had lived through the Second World War, the polio vaccine, and other trials. And this, they contended, was difficult but livable.
Then, this Holy Week, something changed. Resident after resident commented on how much they missed the Eucharist. Most of these life-long daily Mass Catholics had not received the Eucharist for over a year. Not once. And there was no hope in sight.
This is when it became evident that, since I was allowed within the castle walls, Christ could use my access to gain a way inside. I’m sure that He wanted to come. He saw these beloved souls, and He longed to be with them.
The near-miraculous approval from our executive director, combined with the trust of our parish pastor, set the date on which I could bring the Eucharist to the residents – the afternoon of Good Friday. Good Friday? The one day on earth when Mass is not celebrated, when Christ is in the tomb and in stillness and solitude the world awaits His Resurrection.
How many hosts do you need, the pastor inquired? Twenty-five, I replied, thinking it would be enough. But something inside me nagged, you will need more. Ask for forty. And I should have.
Christ and I arrived punctually at 1 PM, and we were directed to the Activity Room. A sign had been hurriedly posted in the elevator that those Catholics wishing to receive Holy Communion could gather for the distribution.
I entered the room and saw faith, pure faith, and devotion. Men in suits, women in pearls and their best jackets and skirts, everyone aware that Christ was present. I placed the pyx on the front table, and we began to pray. As I made my way from resident to resident, proclaiming “The Body of Christ,” I heard the usual response: Amen. Then, Thank you!
As we made our Act of Thanksgiving, a woman in the front row leaned forward on her walker repeating, thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing Christ to us.
The Lord did not forget those individuals who could not even come to the Activity Room of a locked-down care facility on a quiet Good Friday, to receive Him. He saw them, the most isolated, sitting alone in their rooms, and He went to find them. Each of them. By name.
I had been handed a list of all the registered Catholics when I arrived: Forty names. I started breaking the hosts in half, given the sheer number of souls who wanted Christ, and began making my way down the halls, knocking at the appointed apartment doors, asking loudly, “Would you like to receive the Eucharist?”
The response? Gasps. Tears. Joy. Now? I may receive the Eucharist, now? they asked in stupefied astonishment.
One man fell to his knees in his doorway as he answered my knock and received the Eucharist on the threshold. “Lord, I am not worthy.”
Another man watching the ballgame alone on his couch, sat up, dazed and expectant, and we prayed together, “Lord, that You should enter under my roof.”
One couple sat together in their living room. The husband needed help to bring the Eucharist to his lips with his palsied hands.
A few on the list were no longer alive, called home by Our Lord during the past year.
A few have since been hospitalized for unexpected health concerns. Their Good Friday Eucharist was Viaticum. We know not the hour.
Repeatedly, I assured each resident, Christ knew you were here. He sees you. He wanted to come. He found a way.
One woman simply wept, leaning on her walker in her doorway. Thank you, she murmured, I have not received the Eucharist for over a year. Gratitude and tears flowing down her cheeks.
Christ sees us. He finds us. “He will never fail you nor abandon you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) No walls on earth can keep Him out. No powers of Hell can overcome His strength. No pandemic can come between us, if we stand ready to receive Him.
We know not the day nor the hour, but His coming is certain. His Life overcomes Death, for His Victory is already won.
*Image: The Sick Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Les malades attendant le passage de Jésus) by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]