The Easter Triduum, the high point of the liturgical year, is full of lessons on how we might “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
Holy Thursday: To Be Served and To Serve
When I was in second grade, the pastor at our family’s parish invited me to be one of the 12 people to participate in Holy Thursday’s foot washing.
The night was special and important. I remember almost everything. After the homily, I took a seat near the altar, took off my new Easter shoes, and Fr. Greg washed and dried my feet. He smiled warmly, calmly. This didn’t happen at other Masses.
I think of that night and my seven year-old sense of curiosity every Holy Thursday. The foot-washing still catches me off-guard when it starts.
Maybe, by saving it for one time a year, it’s meant to jolt us awake and inspire some child-like wonder. By breaking from the norm, the washing signals: this is crucial. Don’t miss this. There’s a big lesson here.
The practice has its biblical roots in Holy Thursday’s Gospel reading from John 13. It’s the only Last Supper account of the four that does not have the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus takes no bread, takes no cup, says no blessing.
Instead, during the meal, he gets up, and ties a towel around his waist. He washes the feet of his friends.
Feet in First-Century Palestine must have been repulsive – dirty, blistered, cracked. This sort of washing was the work of servants.
This is where and how Jesus, our Lord and King, wants to spend his time. He goes to places that are ugly. He models love through self-giving service.
Holy Thursday’s foot-washing at church reminds us of how Jesus wants to be involved in our lives.
First, Jesus calls us to himself to be washed: to be cared for and nurtured. How difficult it can be to allow ourselves to be served, to admit that we need help.
Second, Jesus sends us out: serve others as I have served you. “Do this in memory of me,” he says during the other three Gospels’ Last Supper accounts. It applies here as well. We are to go to the margins of our societies, leaving our comfortable places frequently, because that is what Jesus did.
What a powerful example Pope Francis set on Holy Thursday a year ago, as he celebrated Mass at a juvenile prison, washing the feet of 12 inmates – young men and women, Catholics and Muslims. We see in that symbolic action and in the words of Jesus an urgent call to let ourselves be served and to serve.
Good Friday: Pardon Your People, Lord
For the past few Good Fridays, my wife and I have participated in the Way of the Cross at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden. The event is a bilingual living stations of the cross throughout the parish’s neighborhood. Hundreds of people walk together through the streets, and parishioners act out the Passion story along the way.
Each station includes a series of intercessions that connect the moment in the Passion story to the life of the community. When Jesus meets his mother, we pray for the mothers of Camden, especially those battling addiction. When Simon helps Jesus carry the cross, we pray for the people and agencies throughout the city who serve those who are materially poor. The Passion story has felt more real during this pilgrimage than it ever has in my own reading, life experience, or suburban liturgical participation. Too real, honestly.
As we process from station to station, filling the street and stopping traffic at each intersection, we pray a rosary and sing. One refrain that is repeated over and over again, in Spanish, loosely translates to “Pardon your people, Lord.”
As we pass homes that do not look livable, and children cluster with their noses pressed at second-floor windows…Pardon your people, Lord.
As we walk by abandoned houses that quickly attract all sorts of crime and can threaten an entire block…Pardon your people, Lord.
As we cross sidewalks and grassy places, littered with glass and television sets and everything else…Pardon your people, Lord.
On Good Friday, our suffering as individuals and as communities is bound to the suffering of Christ. But this is not the end of the story. The hope for justice abides, because we are an Easter people.
Holy Saturday: Love is Stronger than Death
“Baruch ata Adonai…” recites my grandmother in Hebrew, as she lights the Passover candles.
Her son, my Jewish father, sits to my left. My Catholic mother is at the other end of the room. About 15 friends and relatives are crammed around my parents’ dining-room table, where I sat every Sunday night for CCD during middle school.
Each year, united with Jews all over the world, we retell the story of how God led Moses and the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We read aloud through the Haggadah, or “telling,” and eat ritual foods that symbolize different parts of the Exodus. There’s a break for dinner, and then we take the Haggadahs out again for a few more prayers and songs. It’s my favorite family tradition.
Passover usually falls during Holy Week, and a few nights later, at the Easter Vigil, we hear the end of one part of the Passover story, as Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery through the parted Red Sea. A few minutes after that, we’ll hear the story of how Christ rose and showed us that sin, evil, injustice, and even death are no match for God’s love.
The main theme running through both the Passover and Easter narratives is that God hears the suffering of his children and does something about it. We have a God who takes sides with those who are hurting.
The message of Easter is for us to take sides, too. Whenever we put our faith, hope, and love into action on behalf of the downtrodden, we are living Easter. What a privilege it is to be called to serve the Lord by serving one another.
In the early 1860s, when he was 25 years old, Alfred Bessette applied to join the Congregation of Holy Cross as a religious brother. “I am sending you a saint,” his hometown pastor wrote to the community.
After a year in the novitiate, Alfred was turned away because of poor health. But the local archbishop in Montreal intervened, and he was eventually accepted into the community and given the name Brother Andre.
He was assigned to be the doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, and also did the laundry, ran errands, and served as a sacristan.
“When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained 40 years,” he said.
With a peerless devotion to St. Joseph, Brother Andre spent time with the sick and prayed with them. A master of empathy — he was known to weep along with those who visited him — he also had a great sense of humor. It’s no surprise people were drawn to him.
After some were healed, news began to spread. Ultimately, four secretaries were hired to help answer the 80,000 letters Brother Andre received a year. “I do not cure,” he said again and again. “St. Joseph cures.”
Tension grew as his notoriety spread, and the community ultimately prevented Brother Andre from welcoming the sick at the college. So he met with them at the local tramway station instead.
Brother Andre died on January 6, 1937, at the age of 91. More than a million people traveled to Montreal to pay their respects. He was canonized by Pope Benedict in 2009, and today is his feast day.
Today’s traditional observance of the Epiphany is the perfect day to celebrate St. Andre and the way he welcomed thousands of visitors. On January 6, we celebrate the visit of the three Magi — foreigners who trekked across the Middle East to visit Jesus in the manger.
I often think about Epiphany from the perspective of the Magi themselves — “We Three Kings” is in the first-person plural, after all. But St. Andre’s feast day invites me to flip my perspective, and to approach the Epiphany from the Holy Family’s point of view. What would it be like to hear the Magi knocking at the door?
Exhausted from their travel and the birth in the manger, I can’t imagine that Mary and Joseph were feeling all that hospitable those first days of Jesus’ life. If I were St. Joseph, I probably would’ve chased the strange Magi away: “Who did you say you are again? From where? And you brought what for the baby? Mary and Jesus are sleeping right now. I’ll be sure to let them know you came by.”
But no, the Holy Family welcomes the Magi.
St. Joseph probably said something more like this:
“Oh, no, it’s not an inconvenience. Please, come in. I wish we had some real food to offer you. You’re quite some ways from home! And you brought gifts for Jesus? How thoughtful. The support from folks like you who we’ve never even met means so much during this confusing time!”
Hospitality is in Jesus’ DNA. It’s no surprise that few chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and Brother Andre were door-opening people.
Do we throw doors open wide when we hear knocking, or do we crack them open just a few inches, with a forced smile? Or do we pretend we didn’t hear the knock at all?
When a friend asks me for a ride to the airport, is my first instinct to come up with an excuse? When my elderly neighbor’s driveway is covered in snow, do I pull on my boots and grab a shovel? When I see a homeless man on the street, asking for money, do I make eye contact or look away? When church leaders invite me to call my Congressman to urge fair immigration reform, do I pick up the phone? Or do I explain my inaction away by telling myself that those phone calls don’t really mean anything?
This Epiphany, I ask Brother Andre to intercede for me and for our Church. Help us all to be more welcoming, no matter who shows up at the door.
This Sunday’s responsorial psalm (Go out to all the world and tell the Good News) has me thinking about being sent.
Here are three very different examples of sending, and how they might relate to our lives as disciples:
1) Third Base Coach Sending a Runner Home
I’ve been paying more attention to baseball over the past week because the unnamed team I root for has moved into playoff contention. One fun thing to watch in baseball is the third base coach sending a runner home. For instance: on a single to the outfield with a runner on second base, the runner in instructed to put his head down and run, since craning one’s neck toward the outfield while running is inefficient. A coach standing at third base has to decide whether to hold the runner up at third base, or to send him home.
My favorite sending third base coach is the San Francisco Giants’ Tim Flannery, who really gets into it and runs alongside the player toward the plate:
In this act of sending, Coach Flannery joins the runner in his quest and gives him a boost of energy. There’s a feeling both guys are in it together for the good of the team. “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers,” Pope Paul VI wrote, “and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” The best mentors in faith are ones who model great discipleship through their actions.
2) University Official Sending My Parents Off Campus
My sister has just moved into her dorm for her freshman year of college, which has led me to reflect on my own first few days as an undergrad at the same university. My parents and I attended a handful of information sessions and other orientation activities before they left campus. During the final one of these gatherings, right before they’d be leaving, I felt nervous and homesick. To end the meeting, a university official stepped up to the podium and said, in her best race-track announcer voice, “Parents, start your engines.”
She knew there would be temptation to linger, but that it was important for the parents to say goodbye and for the students to jump into this new phase of life.
Great mentors and teachers know when it’s time to let go of their students. I think God’s gift of free will to us humans is kind of like this. God knows that for us to flourish, we have to make our own choices and travel our own journeys. Our guides are with us on the way, but how we choose to live our lives is ultimately up to each one of us.
3) Priest Sending the Faithful Out of Church
I love the Rite of Dismissal, and with our new Mass translation, there are now four options:
Go forth, the Mass is ended. Thanks be to God!
Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life. Thanks be to God!
Go in peace. Thanks be to God!
Our word “Mass” comes from the Latin dismissal, which is Ite, missa est: Go, it is sent (it is the dismissal). So the action of leaving is just as important as the gathering. Nourished by Word, Eucharist, and the community, the presider tells us to scram and to bring God’s love with us.
This part of the Mass calls to mind the great story told in the Last Supper account in John’s Gospel, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and then tells them to go out and do the same.
Our faith is not a Sunday-only commitment, and the sending-out ritual built right into our liturgy is a clear reminder of that. So maybe after Mass this weekend, once you’ve greeted your friends, jog to your car or to your home and get to the work of glorifying the Lord by your life.
Today is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which you can read all about here. To celebrate our awesome mother, I’m going to take a close look at today’s Gospel reading, which includes the Magnificat — my favorite Scripture passage.
Some context: In Luke’s gospel, after Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her she is going to be the Mother of God, Mary travels to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. Turns out Elizabeth is also expecting (John the Baptist — impressive family), despite her old age. Elizabeth comforts her cousin, and confirms that Mary’s encounter with the angel was not a crazy dream. Relieved and emboldened, Mary offers a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
Let’s jump in:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
Some English versions translate this line as “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (The prayer gets its name from its first word in Latin: Magnificat.) I love this idea. I picture Mary holding up a huge magnifying glass. When we approach her, we get a closer look at what God is like. Also, the glass shoots divine light off in every direction, illuminating the Earth with God’s love. We all know those people who seem to magnify the Lord by their lives — by their kindness, gentleness, humor, energy, or depth of their commitment to the Gospel. When the journey of faith is particularly challenging for me, I seek out time to chat with those people. Not because they can give me every answer to every difficult faith question, but because their example inspires me to keep going. If he or she wants to be about this stuff, so do I — even when it’d be easier to give up.
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.
True humility is not playing small or deflecting praise whenever it comes. Instead, humility is awareness of both the gifts and shortcomings you have; it’s a realization that you are a blessed, unique child of God who didn’t do anything to earn the gifts you’ve been given. In these lines of the Magnificat, Mary acknowledges that God has chosen her for an extremely important task. But she also says that she will have to depend on God to guide her through her big-time vocation. Her humility is a great example for us.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
I’ve been reflecting on God’s mercy recently in light of Pope Francis’ special emphasis on the concept. He is plugged in to Mary’s idea that God’s mercy is available in any age to those who seek God with open hearts.
From his press conference on the plane back to Italy from World Youth Day, in response to a question about divorced and remarried Catholics, Pope Francis talked about our own time as an age in particular need of God’s mercy:
Mercy is a larger theme than the question you raise [divorced and remarried Catholics]. I believe this is the time of mercy. This change of epoch, also because of many problems of the church — such as the example of some priests who aren’t good, also the problems of corruption in the church — and also the problem of clericalism, for example, has left many wounds, many wounds. The church is a mother: It must reach out to heal the wounds, yes? With mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we don’t have any other path than this one: before anything else, curing the wounds, yes? It’s a mother, the church, and it must go down this path of mercy. It must find mercy for everyone, no? I think about how when the Prodigal Son returned home, his father didn’t say: ‘But you, listen, sit down. What did you do with the money?’ No, he held a party. Then, maybe, when the son wanted to talk, he talked. The church must do the same. When there’s someone … but, it’s not enough to wait for them: We must go and seek them. This is mercy.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
Mary has an intimate relationship with God that predates Gabriel’s announcement. The Magnificat itself echoes the Song of Hannah from the Books of Samuel — Scripture Mary knew deeply and used to frame her own song to God. So when Mary starts describing what God is like here, it’d be smart to pay close attention. This section starts by describing God’s strength, and what he does with that strength.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary uses stark contrasts to describe what God’s mercy and power look like. Mighty: Down. Lowly: Up. Hungry: Filled. Rich: Empty. God is a threat to those who proudly lord it over others. So subversive is this line that public recitation of the Magnificat was banned by the authoritarian Guatemalan government in the 1980s. At the same time, God has a special care for the weak and vulnerable. His action in the world is simultaneously disbanding and uplifting.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.
The biggest word here is promise, which is repeated in consecutive lines. Mary is recalling the covenant relationship God established and renewed with Israel throughout Hebrew Scriptures, and places herself in that tradition. God promises Mary (and us) he is present, and empowers her (and us) to use our gifts to change the world.
On this Feast of the Assumption, may Mary’s prayer inspire us to pray with conviction, to practice humility, and to work for a more just world.
This Sunday’s Gospel passage is an all-time classic: the story of the Good Samaritan.
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said,
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law?
How do you read it?”
He said in reply,
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”
He replied to him, “You have answered correctly;
do this and you will live.”
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus,
“And who is my neighbor?”
“A man fell victim to robbers
as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.
A priest happened to be going down that road,
but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
Likewise a Levite came to the place,
and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him
was moved with compassion at the sight.
He approached the victim,
poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them.
Then he lifted him up on his own animal,
took him to an inn, and cared for him.
The next day he took out two silver coins
and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction,
‘Take care of him.
If you spend more than what I have given you,
I shall repay you on my way back.’
Which of these three, in your opinion,
was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Here are three thoughts popping around this time through the Lectionary:
1) This passage sends us out…
I watched a webinar yesterday with Jack Jezreel, founder of JustFaith Ministries, which offers the best Catholic social teaching formation programs in the world. Jack loves to talk about the two major functions of parishes, which he derives from the ministry of Christ: gathering and sending. Our churches gather people in for liturgy and prayer, education and formation, social events, and more. We often spend most of our time and resources on these gatherings. But parishes are also meant to send us out to live the Gospel mission in the world, especially with and for those who are most vulnerable in society.
We’re not always that great at sending. Jack wonders what it would look like if we spent half our parish budgets, half our buildings, half our time, half our parish staffs on gathering, and precisely half on sending people out.
This passage is one of the best examples of “sending-out Scripture.” Jesus gathers his followers and other interested folks, gives a striking example of what it means to love your neighbor, and then tells them to get moving: “Go and do likewise.”
2) …to get uncomfortable…
The love Jesus describes in the story is not easy or comfortable. It is inconvenient, dirty, sweaty, expensive, and without immediate reward. And it is exactly this type of love that should characterize Christ’s followers. We have so many examples in our tradition of this type of love: St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, St. Damien of Molokai, more and more. Jack Jezreel points out that if our churches emphasize sending in the spirit of the Good Samaritan story, people will be compelled to voluntarily displace themselves to spend time with those who are poor and marginalized.
Good Samaritan love also calls us to work to change the structures in our world that perpetuate injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about this aspect of the story:
On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
3) …and to look for God in the unlikeliest people and places.
In first-century Palestine, Samaritans and Jews were enemies. For a Jewish audience, the idea of a “Good Samaritan” would’ve been unthinkable. Jesus’ intentional usage of a Samaritan in the story, especially after the willful neglect displayed by the Jewish religious leaders who pass by the beaten man, encourages his followers to overcome prejudices and see the face of God in all people. The radical love and service Jesus calls for breaks down barriers and dismisses nobody.
May God give us the courage to take the Good Samaritan story seriously.
This was the scene at Chicago’s Grant Park yesterday, when thousands of Blackhawk fans gathered to celebrate the team’s recent Stanley Cup victory over the Boston Bruins:
The team (and cup) rode a bus through the city, greeted by mobs all along the route:
Now, imagine behind that bus was one carrying the Blackhawks’ archrival team — the Detroit Red Wings.
Probably not a good idea. The best-case scenario would be lots of peaceful booing. Honoring two archrivals on one day with one event doesn’t make much sense.
I wonder what Saints Peter and Paul think about today’s Feast as they look down at us from Heaven. By most accounts, they didn’t get along too well in those first days of our Church’s history. They were rivals, in a way — maybe not Blackhawk/Red Wing-level rivals, but definitely not close friends. And now, on one of the most important feast days in our church year, we celebrate both of them at once. This is a prophetic celebration that intrigues me for three main reasons.
1. The Feast celebrates our Catholic traditions of intellectual inquiry and creative tension.
The most interesting evidence of the Peter/Paul rivalry is found in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, when he describes what is called the “Incident at Antioch.” Peter argued that any Gentiles coming into the Christian flock should be circumcised and follow Jewish Law before admittance. Paul disagreed, to put it mildly. He writes: “And when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” Paul argued that faith in Christ was enough, and that Gentile should not have to follow the Mosaic Law to become Christians.
This was a big debate as the early Christians struggled to work out just what it meant to be part of the community. Ultimately, Paul’s position won the day, and Peter agreed to it. But the incident is evidence that saints in our tradition have disagreed with each other about theology and pastoral practice — even to each other’s faces.
As we face so many thorny theological and political issues of our own time, Peter and Paul remind us that it’s OK to grapple with big questions and even disagree from time to time, as long as we do so with respect, honesty, and a willingness to admit when we’re wrong.
2. Despite a big disagreement, Peter and Paul stuck together and used their unique gifts to build up the church.
Church tradition has it that after their spat at Antioch, Peter and Paul taught together in Rome and brought Christianity there. I wonder what it would’ve been like to have taken a course co-taught by these two saints.
Paul would probably talk about the importance of keeping mission at the forefront. His would be big, inspiring, vision-oriented lessons, with not much about the particulars. Just get moving and spread the good news.
Peter would probably focus more on organization and management. As a former fisherman, he would know the importance of detail and hard, sustained work — skills that would’ve come in handy as the first leader of the church.
The key is that we needed all of those traits in the early church, and we need them all now. Today’s feast is a call for all the baptized to use our God-given gifts in the service of others. This very idea, of course, comes from Paul: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord…” Or, in the words of contemporary theologian Frederick Buechner, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
3. Peter and Paul both teach that Christian faith must be characterized by self-giving love, especially toward the most vulnerable.
Even with their divergent approaches and skill sets, the faith that Peter and Paul describe in their epistles is marked by self-giving love, especially when it would be easier to give up.
For instance, in his first letter, Peter writes, “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” That sounds a lot like the First Corinthians passage above.
And in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.”
In the end, the rivalry between Peter and Paul gives way to common mission and faith. They might not have been best friends, but their shared devotion and mutual respect sparked the spread of the Gospel throughout the world.
As Christians, today’s passage reminds us who our true leader and figure of authority is. And the vision Jesus lays out for our lives today couldn’t be clearer, even almost 2000 years after the Gospel was written. At the end of time, we will be judged by how we — as individuals and as society — treated the most vulnerable among us.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”
“Christ for President,” lyrics by Woody Guthrie, music and performance by Wilco.