In his recent Palm Sunday homily, Pope Francis invites us to enter the mystery of Holy Week by reflecting on who we are in the unfolding drama of the Lord’s Passion:
We might well ask ourselves just one question: Who am I? Who am I, before my Lord? Who am I, before Jesus who enters Jerusalem amid the enthusiasm of the crowd? Am I ready to express my joy, to praise him? Or do I stand back? Who am I, before the suffering Jesus?
In true Jesuit fashion, he continues by asking us to consider the character we most identify with in the Passion narrative. Pilate? Judas? The Soldiers? The Cyrene? Mary and the other women at the tomb?
Who am I, before the suffering Jesus?
In reflecting on this question over the past few days, I find myself identifying with the sleeping disciples in the Garden. I don’t know about others, but I feel like I’ve slept through Lent this year. And like those dear friends of Jesus, this certainly was not my intention. I meant to stay awake. I meant to stay with Jesus. Thinking back to Ash Wednesday, I remember fervently praying the words of Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart.” I set my Lenten goals of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But here we are at Good Friday and I feel like shouting NO!!! Not yet! I need a do-over! I didn’t get it right! I’ve ignored the suffering of others around me. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been distracted in prayer–that is, when I’ve taken the time to pray. I didn’t even follow through on my simple Lenten fast. I have not yet had the conversion I promised God that I would have!
Wait. What? I have not yet experienced the conversion I promised God? In our goal-oriented culture, we tend to measure our worthiness by what we are capable of doing and how well we do it on our own. Is it any wonder that this attitude managed to shape how I approached Lent? In concentrating on practicing Lent successfully, I failed to hear and acknowledge Jesus’ call to just be present and open, willing to let God break open my heart and let God take the lead in my journey towards conversion. In trying to go it alone, I’ve been lulled into a sort of apathetic exhaustion. When we feel this way–weary, despondent, ashamed–we may no longer feel worthy of participating in the unfolding drama of God’s saving work. Feeling like somehow we’ve missed the majority of the play, we may prefer to sleep through the final act. Mary Oliver captures this reality of human frailty in her poem “Gethsemane”:
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.
So my Lenten experience was not what I hoped it would be this year. Like Peter, I’ve denied my relationship with Jesus. Like the crowd, I’ve been caught up in the frenzy of the world around me and complicit in its violent ways. Like the disciples, I fell asleep in the Garden. I “could not keep that vigil.” But the truth is, Jesus still wants me to join him on the journey. And we must have the courage to be part of the story. It is not too late. There is still time to ask, “Who am I, before the suffering Jesus?” There is still time to wake up and walk with Jesus towards the Cross.
A priest friend of mine shared with me that one of his favorite parts of the Triduum celebration is the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. He told me with how much he cherishes witnessing the people of God come forth —some with visible physical ailments, some with hidden emotional scars, some laden with the burden of shame, some with the burden of exclusion, some with the burden of loss. The humble, embodied act of venerating the Cross reveals both our deepest God-given desire and our greatest God-given capacity to be drawn as close as humanly possible to the radical mystery of love. During the Veneration of the Cross we come just as we are and step in line with our brothers and sisters on the Way, thus making the choice to claim our place in the unfolding drama of God’s salvation. We journey towards the Cross, for that is where we find Jesus. We kneel and bow. We kiss His feet. We touch His broken body. We weep.
And then we do what we must do. We wait.