Holy Week at Home: Ideas for Celebrating While Social Distancing

I love Holy Week. The visceral way we Catholics celebrate the end of Lent and, especially, the triumph of Easter. Incense, fire, darkness. Shoulder to shoulder in increasingly crowded pews, we wash feet, we break bread. Our anticipation builds in community. We adorn and we strip. Every sense is penetrated: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.

It’s strange, and it hurts to think how this year will be different. I won’t be able to smell the frankincense on Holy Thursday. Whose feet will Father wash? When the sacring bells return on Easter Vigil, they will come distorted through the speakers of our televisions and computers. Most painfully, there will be no Eucharist. Jesus will still be there in the hands of my priest, but I won’t be able to receive Him.

I’ve been mourning the reality slowly. And yet, I’m reminded of the words of St. John Paul the Great:

“We are the Easter people, and Hallelujah is our song!”

Even in this strange season, this Lent that will not end as other Lents have, we are called as Catholics to celebrate. It is what we have always done. In times of persecution, war, and plague, we have celebrated the seasons of our church: the perennial cycle of anticipation and fulfillment, of fast and feast.

This Holy Week will look different from any Holy Week I’ve ever lived, but that’s no reason not to embrace it for what it is. Especially in this season where the whole world feels inside out, now is the time above all others to cling to the wisdom and traditions of our faith, to examine and reimagine, and to find any and every way we can to connect with the heart of it all–the only thing that really matters–our God who loves us.

To that end, here are some ideas for celebrating Holy Week at home:

Show Your (Liturgical) Colors

One of the “churchiest” things we Catholics do is color-code our holy days. The church decorations and especially our priests’ vestments set the tone for our celebrations. This year, since we can’t go to church, let’s display our colors proudly at home!

For those who need a refresher, that’s red on Palm Sunday, white on Holy Thursday, black on Good Friday, and purple for the days in between.

Have a Palm Procession

We may not be able to receive blessed palms from our parishes, but we can still celebrate Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem from the comfort of our homes. If you’re lucky enough to have a palm tree–or a neighbor you can bum a few branches off of, then you’re all set! If not, consider using another type of branch. Pussy willow are traditional in some rites. You can also purchase palms online.

Whatever you choose, hold your branches high as you process through your house, around the backyard, or (if you’re feeling bravely evangelistic) down the street! You can do this prior to Mass, if you’re participating in a livestream service, since that’s when it would normally occur. Or you can have your celebration later in the day.

Before you begin, you might consider reading the account of from the family Bible (Matt. 21:1-11). As you process, you could sing a hymn such as “All Glory, Laud and Honor” or Hillsong United’s “Hosannah.” Avoid hymns with “the A-word” (Alleluia) since we save those for Easter!

Go to Confession

This may not be possible for everyone this year, but if you are still able to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in your diocese, Holy Week is the perfect time to avail yourself. If confession times are not being offered at your church and you need to receive the sacrament, please call your parish priest. Most are still able to make arrangements to meet you privately.

Listen to Liturgical Music

Libraries and churches may be closed, but you can still listen to some beautiful liturgical music right on your cellphone. Create your own playlist, or stream one of these albums to get you started:

Lent at Ephesus

O Vos Omnes

Exaudium Eum

Greater Love Hath No Man

Spring Clean

In many parts of the world, the Wednesday of Holy Week is set aside to do some deep cleaning at home. This comes from the Jewish tradition of doing a truly impressive deep clean in preparation for Passover–you literally can’t have a crumb of leaven in the house! I won’t be going that far, but a little spring cleaning wouldn’t hurt. Since most of us are stuck at home anyway, why not? Take some time this week to spruce up your house, inside and out. I know I could do with letting a little fresh air in these days.

Triduum on the TV

No matter where you are in the world, if you’ve got an internet connection, you’ve got Mass. I know it’s not the same as being there in person, but it’s still Jesus there on the screen! It’s still the universal prayer of the Church! We still receive absolution for our venial sins! It’s still the Word of God! And we can still make a Spiritual Communion. So many graces still flow to us through the celebration of the Mass, even if we’re not there in person.

If your kids are having trouble with the idea of “Mass in the Living Room,” you might try making the area in which you stream Mass a little more liturgical. Have your bible handy so you can join in the readings. Have something to kneel on if it’s difficult for you to do so on your floor. Put away anything that’s really distracting. Light a candle. Many families have posted photos of their family’s “sanctuaries” on social media, if you’re looking for inspiration.

You might also like to give some consideration to how you “come” to Mass. I’ve been asking my kids to dress as we normally would for Mass, which on weekdays is just in clean, modest clothing and groomed hair, and on Sundays we dress up a bit. The act of “getting ready” for Mass really has helped them to pay attention during it. I also think it’s good for them to know that it’s Jesus we’re dressing up for, not our fellow congregants–and Jesus is still there!

Family Footwashing

Before dinner or after livestreaming Mass on Thursday evening, perform a footwashing ceremony with your family. This is just like Father would do at a normal Mass of the Lord’s Supper. You can read the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13. Then take turns washing each others’ feet in a bowl of water and drying them with a towel as an expression of loving service. In our home, my husband, as the head of our family, will be washing my feet and those of our children, but you can do whatever is appropriate for your household.

Make a Virtual Holy Hour

You can do this any time, but it’s a longstanding tradition to make a Holy Hour on Holy Thursday night, in remembrance of Jesus’ time in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked the disciples to pray with him for one hour. Most of us can’t go to adoration in person right now, but there are plenty of parishes and other organizations livestreaming adoration.

Fast for a Reason

In the United States, Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 who are not prevented from doing so for health reasons are obligated to fast, meaning they may consume one full meal plus two small meals that do not together add up to the one full meal. All Catholics over the age of 14 are also required to abstain from eating meat. Many Catholics, even those not bound to the fast, choose to make additional penances on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

We believe that these sacrifices serve a purpose. Suffering is redemptive when we unite it to the sufferings of Christ, and when better to do so than on those days when we commemorate His death? There are so much need of redemption in our world right now. Let us have a reason for our fasting and let us cry out to God to use our suffering for his glory.

Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday and throughout the Easter season. Bake up a batch with your kids and call it homeschool!

Cover your Crosses

After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, it’s traditional to strip and wash the altar and remove all holy images from the sanctuary of the Church. We won’t be able to participate in this at our parishes this year, but did you know it’s also traditional to do it at home?

You can start by reading Psalm 22 together. Then send your family on a “treasure hunt” through the house, gathering up all the icons, crosses, crucifixes, and religious symbols that can be easily moved. Ask your children to work silently as a sign of respect for the task, then gather all the items into a storage bin. Use a dark cloth to drape any items that are too large or permanent to pack away.

If you have a family altar or little oratory, remove all adornments and wipe it clean. You could use your dining or kitchen table for this, as well, or in addition. Leave the altar or table bare until Easter morning. On Saturday night, after Vigil and/or everyone is in bed, you can unpack and uncover all the religious items. What a meaningful vision to wake up to!

Go Dark

Unplug from noon on Good Friday until noon on Holy Saturday. Turn off and put away all cell phones, tablets, television, radios, and computers. Live into the silence, reflect on it together.

Stations of the Cross

My parish priest is offering livestream stations on Fridays this Lent, and I know others are, as well. You can also use a booklet to pray them together with your family at home. You can use printed images taped to the wall or, like our family, you might use candles. Either way, taking time out of a Friday afternoon (many people choose noon or 3 pm) to “walk” the way of the Cross with our Lord is a powerful way to enter into the reality of his Passion.

Make a Paschal Candle

Holy Saturday is a quiet respite of anticipation between the tragedy of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter. What better way to wait it out than making a Paschal candle with your family? You can decorate it to match the candle at your church, or you can get creative. My family loves using beeswax pillars and forming designs from modeling beeswax. We’ve done this for baptismal candles for our children and godchildren, as well.

A Note on Christian Passovers

One thing my family won’t be doing is celebrating a “Christian seder.” I hesitate to say this, because I know the practice has become popular in recent years. While I believe that families and communities have celebrated these ritual dinners in a spirit of reverence, I think it’s important to remember that Passover seder is sacred to the Jewish faith. It was sacred to Jesus. It isn’t something for us to pick up and reinvent as it suits us. I have attended Jewish seders and found them beautiful, fun, and deeply moving, but my experience was that of a guest.

Passover is a uniquely Jewish holiday and truly cannot be celebrated except by and among Jewish people. The Catholic faith has so many rich traditions of its own. Just as I wouldn’t want my own sacred traditions to be appropriated by those who may not fully understand them, so I want to respect the traditions of my Jewish brothers and sisters by allowing them to celebrate those rites and rituals as they ought to be celebrated, as they have been celebrated be generations of Jews for thousands of years.

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I’m hoping to get another post up by the end of the week, with ideas for how to celebrate Easter at home, but honestly, my heart is hurting to think of Easter without Mass, friends, and extended family. In the meantime, please share your own Holy Week plans in the comments. I’d love to hear how your family is celebrating. Or just let me know how you’re doing this crazy Lent!

sweetness & grace & good health,