Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S. authored a Holy Week Retreat that we will present here on the province website. Each day will be added the morning of the presentation.
There are discussion questions for the retreat at the end of the text on this page.
Prayer in a Pandemic
(To be prayed each day)
God of Life,
this Holy Week we stand under the shadow
of the cross of Covid-19.
Each day, the numbers of those infected rise and the death toll climbs.
It is a time of fear and
confusion as we cry out to you in our distress.
As your heart breaks at the suffering of your people,
you bend your ear
and hear our prayer.
As we walk this holy way,
help us to empty ourselves
to make a space for your paschal mystery.
Open our eyes to see you,
our ears to hear your voice.
You do not abandon us
but send your Son, Jesus,
to walk this road with us.
With our fragile faith,
You give us the courage
to remember how
You accompany us
along the way,
to remind us we are not
alone but stand together
under the weight
of this cross.
Holy Week 2020 Retreat: Conference 4
A Word to the Weary:
Healing and Hope
Isaiah 50, 4-9
Matthew 26, 14-25
Readings Available at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/040820.cfm
I want to focus this reflection on the first reading from the prophet Isaiah about speaking “to the weary a word that will rouse them.” Are you tired of this self-isolation yet? Are you weary of all the bad news, desperate to hear those hints of hope about the curve of the coronavirus in some parts of the country flattening out or the number of admissions to hospitals in some places slowing down or the death rates from the virus being lower today than yesterday? The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle this morning, “A Glimmer of Hope in the Bay Area: New Coronavirus Cases Slowing” offered such a hint to many feeling the weight of weariness after weeks of shelter in place.
But we begin by remembering a James Bond movie more than forty years ago called, “The Spy Who Loved Me.” I looked it up on line and Roger Moore not Sean Connery played the role of Bond. If you are a fan or just really bored, you can watch it during this shelter in place on any number of streaming platforms. But it’s the title that captures my attention because this Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes called “Spy Wednesday.” We hear in Matthew’s gospel how Judas Iscariot goes to the religious leaders and says, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you.” They negotiate a fee that roughly was the going rate for a slave—30 pieces of silver.” So, Judas becomes a spy looking for an opportunity to betray him.
The Spy Who Loved Jesus
The rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, which debuted on Broadway the year I graduated from high school, focuses on the relationship between Judas and Jesus. In its version of the story, Judas is disillusioned because he believes Jesus is an extraordinary man with an unyielding commitment to the poor and marginalized, but that his followers are making him out to be the savior. When Judas sees that Jesus is beginning to believe this Messiah stuff himself, he decides he must put a stop to it. After watching Jesus turn the temple upside down and throw out the merchants and moneychangers, Judas goes to the religious authorities and works out a deal with them to hand Jesus over to them. In the play, Judas admires and even loves Jesus as a man but doesn’t believe that he’s the Son of God. In the theme song from show, Judas asks, “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?”
But then, after betraying him and watching the events of unfold after Jesus’ arrest, Judas realizes he has made a terrible mistake. Believing that his sin is unforgivable, that he would always be remembered as the scoundrel who sold out the savior, Judas hangs himself in despair.
It’s been a long time since I listened to the music from this show, but I recall the poignant scene at the Last Supper when the disciples are getting drunk on too much wine and Jesus sings, “The end is just a little harder when brought about by friends.” This is the theme song for this day of Holy Week. Jesus is not a superstar but a savior whose heart is broken because one of his own will betray him not with a stab in the back but with a kiss on the cheek. And Judas is not the star of this show but a traitor who struck a deal with the religious authorities to betray him.
Certainly, in Matthew’s version of the betrayal we hear in today’s Gospel, Judas shows no remorse or regret for betraying his friend. His voice seems to drip with sarcasm when, after Jesus has said that his betrayer is present, Judas says to Jesus, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” There is no getting around Matthew’s characterization of Judas as a thief and a traitor.
Many people much smarter than me have mused about Judas’ motivation for betraying Jesus. Some have suggested that Judas loved Jesus but thought he was getting ahead of himself or perhaps not going fast enough for Judas. Maybe he was upset that Jesus called him out in front of the group in the story we heard on Monday when he complained about the price of the oil Mary was using to anoint Jesus and saying it would have been better sold and given to the poor. Remember the money from the sale, Judas calculated, would have been worth three hundred days’ wages. Judas only received thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of his friend. Thirty pieces of silver was the going price for a male slave.
Some scholars believe that the name we often associate with Judas, Iscariot, means that he belonged to a revolutionary group within the Zealot party—a political and religious group that were passionate about the overthrow of the Roman occupation even if it meant resorting to violence—so that Judas felt betrayed by Jesus because of his rejection of violence. Judas had come to believe that only through violence could the Roman oppressors be overcome and so he felt Jesus pursuit of a nonviolent path to peace was naïve at best and dangerous at worst. Because Jesus renounced violence, Judas’ betrayal was more political than personal.
But betrayal is always personal. When someone hurts you and says, “Don’t take it personally,” how else are you supposed to take it? We are human persons. We taken things personally. Some have thicker skin that others so the words don’t hurt as much. But for those who are thin-skinned, that line from a Cher song from long ago, “Words are like weapons, they wound sometimes” leave a mark. But no matter how one experiences betrayal, it is always personal and it always hurts.
Betrayal rips the heart open, tears, shatters, destroys. It is more than painful; it is horrific. Because we are not betrayed by strangers or people with whom we only have a passing acquaintance or surface relationship. Betrayal is when someone we love, someone we have invested our lives, shared our story, entrusted with our truth, turns on us and shatters the relationship. We can debate whether Judas was the “spy who loved Jesus” but this much we know: Jesus loved Judas. He chose him to be part of his inner circle, one of the original disciples, one of those who witnessed his miracles and listened to his teaching and watched as he transformed broken lives. Jesus also trusted him as treasurer with the resources of his motley group of missionary disciples.
Another possibility for why Judas betrayed Jesus was offered at a day of reflection I attended a few years ago when the speaker said acedia might be the reason Judas turned on Jesus. Acedia is one of the seven deadly sins, more commonly known as sloth or apathy. The speaker at the day of prayer defined acedia as “a shrinking back from the greatness of our call.” He suggested that Judas was afflicted with acedia when he turned Jesus over to the authorities because even though he was called to be an intimate disciples and entrusted with the resources to be a good steward, he became disenchanted, even disgusted with the way Jesus was carrying out the mission.
Whatever the reasons behind Judas’ betrayal, he ultimately refused to accept the love and light Jesus was extending to him. As the website, Sacred Space, suggested, “The real sin of Judas was not his betrayal, but his rejection of the light.”
Which brings me to the reading from the suffering servant of the prophet Isaiah who says God has given him “a well-trained tongue that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” The prophet here identifies a kind of weariness that goes beyond the way our bodies and bones feel after a long day of hard, grueling work—the kind of long days our doctors, nurses, EMTS, first responders and so many others who are on the front lines confronting this pandemic and helping those who are sick. The kind of weariness Isaiah refers to includes this but it goes beyond the body to the soul. It stretches to that point where one simply wants to give up and give in, to surrender to the darkness.
Several years ago, a man I’ll call John told me a story the reflected this kind of soul weariness. He had been drafted in 1968 and sent to serve in the war in Vietnam. He said he carries many memories, stories, and wounds from the war that scarred his soul, but one particular experience was like a crown of thorns pushed down upon his heart for forty years.
One day John was walking point on patrol and a squealing pig jumped out of the underbrush and scared him half to death. The rest of the platoon got a big kick out of seeing John lose his balance and falling flat on his back. Because of the backpack and equipment, he was wearing, he needed help to get back on his feet.
In the evening, worn out from patrol and still feeling the sting of embarrassment, John settled into a bomb crater with a few others from the platoon to have a bite to eat. The crater was damp and muddy. John said his favorite comfort food while he was in Vietnam was canned peaches and pound cake. He was looking forward to savoring this simple meal. He liked to pour the peaches over the pound cake. John was balancing the pound cake on his knee as he opened the canned peaches with his knife. But the knife slipped and knocked the pound cake off his knee. He watched as the pound cake soaked up the muddy water in the bottom of the crater like a sponge. The weariness he felt in his soul at that moment, John said, has stayed with him all these years.
Thinking of John in that foxhole more than fifty years ago, worn out from the war and scarred by the violence he had witnessed, is where the words of the prophet Isaiah, “God has given me a well-trained tongue that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them,” find a home—in the hearts of those weighed down by grief and weary from life. Ultimately, John’s story finds place in the story of Jesus’ passion, his experience of betrayal, his arrest, his torture, and his crucifixion.
It calls forth a poem by Mary Oliver in which she writes, “Sometimes, melancholy leaves me breathless.” Reflecting on her poem, “Sometimes,” it occurred to me that the last four letters of “melancholy” spell “holy.” What is holy about sadness or the depth of weariness that shrouds the soul in darkness? Maybe it forces one to dig deeper to find the joy, to discover the truth, to uncover the hope, to recover the energy. Because in the same poem, Mary Oliver writes this:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
This is what poets and prophets and servants of God’s Word are called to do that will “speak to the weary a Word that will rouse them”: tell others what catches your attention, what astonishes you. Pay attention to what happening right now in this moment, in this extended time of sheltering in place. Be astonished by the witness of so many risking their lives in helping to save other peoples’ lives.
John’s experience in that foxhole so many years ago and stories from today like the bus driver in Detroit who made a video telling people to take this pandemic seriously after one of the passengers seemed oblivious and coughed on him and other passengers call us to pay attention to what is happening within us and around us. The bus driver’s video went viral because a few days after he told the world to look out for one another, he was diagnosed with the coronavirus and a few days after that, he died. His voice and the voices of the wife and his children who are grieving his loss are calling out to us.
These stories of soul weariness, like the coronavirus itself, remind us there is no cure. But our journey of Holy Week reflects that when there is no cure, there is a compassionate presence that can lead to healing and even hope.
The Practice of Healing
Holy Week prescribes not cures but compassion. There is no cure for a broken relationship like the one Jesus experienced when he was betrayed by his friend, Judas. Or the kind of degradation the enemies of the suffering servant sought to impose upon him when they beat him, slapped his face, plucked his beard and spit in his face. The focus of Holy Week is on healing, not curing.
Dr. Bernard Lown, author of The Lost Art of Healing: Practicing Compassion in Medicine, is a renowned cardiologist who invented the defibrillator and is the recipient of a Nobel Prize. But the prize was not for medicine. He accepted the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization he co-founded, the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War. He is now 98 years old and according the Harvard School of Public Health where he is professor emeritus, “is finding himself increasingly in the role of patient.”
He was hospitalized with pneumonia a couple of years ago and the young doctor, Rich Joseph, who took care of him wrote about his experience in a column in the New York Times (February 24, 2018). Joseph said Dr. Lown “questioned his treatment, which he found to be too focused on fixing his malfunctioning body parts with too little consideration for his healing.” The young doctor said, “As I navigate my professional journey, Dr. Lown’s example inspires me to go to work every day with the perspective of the patient, the spirit of an activist, and the heart of a healer.”
In an interview with the NPR several years ago, Dr. Lown talked about how doctors and medical professionals need to focus on the healing of the patient. He mentioned a simple thing in the interview, like turning over a pillow for a patient who has a fever. The cool side of the pillow brings some relief to the patient. It is a simple practice—remember this man invented the defibrillator, a medical procedure that has saved thousands of lives, talking about turning over a pillow for a fever-stricken patient as a medical procedure—Dr. Lown said we are all physicians. When a person feels better after an encounter with us, we are being healers.
A Community of Healers
But how do we heal the devastating wound of betrayal?
Poet Tony Hoagland wrote an article for The Sun magazine with the provocative title, “The Cure for Racism is Cancer.” Two years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer and has spent so much of his time hooked up to chemotherapy. He points out that people of all races, colors, creeds, sexual orientations, ages, occupations, and vocations come together and what they all have in common is cancer. It is very similar to what we are experiencing today with the coronavirus that reminds us how suffering and the cross levels the field.
“In this country of cancer,” Hoagland writes, “everyone is simultaneously a have and a have-not. In this land, no citizens are protected by property, job description, prestige, and pretentions; they are not even protected by their prejudices. Neither money nor education, greed nor ambition can alter the facts. You are simply cancer citizens, bargaining for more life.” In this land of sickness, Hoagland wrote, “you live together in the community of cancer. Now that you are sick, you have time to think.”
Isn’t this where we are today as we practice keeping our distance and shelter in place? We have lots of time to think, to pray, to read, to tell our stories. Because we are all in this together. Certainly, we might grow impatient as the days grow longer and the day when the social distancing and shelter in place gets moved back another week or two or month. It’s not easy to stay this course but if you’re looking for a shortcut, remember what Claudia Jernigan said: “Never underestimate the length of a shortcut.”
Claudia is a calligrapher and she penned this quote about taking a shortcut after being in a hurry to get home after work one night. She tried to beat a red light by stepping on the gas—something I’ve done a time or two in my life. What happened next, however, caused her car to be t-boned and Claudia to spend the next several months in a hospital to heal. “Whenever I’m tempted to save time at the risk of my health or welfare,” she writes, “I think about the time length of a shortcut.”
We live in a time when we are looking for shortcuts. We are looking to find the quickest route to save time. Of course, we want to end the pandemic as quickly as possible so that fewer and fewer people are infected and fewer people die. But as we have heard often over these last few weeks, each of us has a role by doing those very practical and simple things like washing our hands thoroughly and keeping our distance. We are a community of healers when we reach out to those in our lives through phone calls and video chats and texts and emails. Who knows, this time in solitude might even grant us the time to sit down and write a letter or a note or send a card to wish another well and tell them what is going on in our lives.
Practicing our Passion
This Holy Week invites us to tap the passion inside of each of our hearts. To touch and taste again the passion that moves us and motivates us, sustains us in those dark and dreary days, and strengthens us in those times when we are all alone.
This is passion: setting one’s “face like flint” and “knowing we will not be put to shame.” The writer, Alice Walker, saw such a look on the face of her mother the day her father died. She watched as her mother looked at the dead face of her father. “Without tears, without smiles, but with civility,” she heard her mother say, “Good night, Willie Lee, I’ll see you in the morning.” It was then, Alice writes, “I knew the healing of all wounds is forgiveness that permits a promise of our return at the end.”
The passion of this Holy Week, found in the witness of the Suffering Servant and the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, is the passion to forgive and be forgiven. It is the passion to hollow out our lives of all resentment toward those who have hurt us. It is the passion to let whatever residue of guilt or shame that lingers in our souls to be wiped clean and redeemed.
The witness of Jesus during this Holy Week speaks loudly and clearly about God’s passion for pardon and peace. God desires that we receive divine mercy, that we open ourselves to God’s grace of forgiving love and extend this same love to one another, even to those who have betrayed us.
Remember the story of the tribe in southern Africa which I have told often when giving retreats and workshops on reconciliation. When a person does something wrong, something that hurts another or upsets the balance of community or disrupts the flow of love or even destroys the fragile web that weaves a people together and “brings all the work in a village to a halt,” he is brought before the tribe. The people of the village “gather around the ‘offender,’ and one by one they begin to recite everything he has done right in his life; every good deed, thoughtful behavior, and act of social responsibility.”
It is just the opposite of the old “chapter of faults” practiced in religious life, or the catalogue of catastrophic failures many of us still recite when celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation, making a list and checking it twice like a shadow Santa more focused on the naughty than the nice.
When the village gathers around the offender and recites the acts of kindness the person has shown in the past, the stories must be true and spoken with sincerity and conviction. Honesty is the rule; truth is the order of the ritual. But the purpose is to help the person who perpetrated the socially irresponsible and morally repulsive behavior to remember and to embrace his better self. “The person is given the chance to remember who he is and why he is important in the life of the village.”
My friends, this is God’s passion and our promise this Holy Week: to remember in the events of these days that we are redeemed and reclaimed as God’ beloved. In the silence of these holy days, may we know God’s passion and rediscover our own. St. Francis of Assisi put it like this, “We have been called to heal wounds, to bring together what has fallen apart and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
We are neither superstars nor scoundrels but servants who seek to find that safe place within our souls during these days of sheltering in place where, like the servant in today’s first reading, we may open our ear “morning after morning” that we may hear. It is here in the silence of our prayer this week that we learn how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. It is here in the silence of our souls that through God’s grace we develop and sustain an inner strength that will allow us to set our faces like flint. It is here in the stillness of that sacred space within our souls we come to know that God is our help.
At the Crossroads: Reflections at the Intersection of Life and Death
- Where does the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus find a place in your personal story?
- How does the coronavirus pandemic reflect the paschal mystery?
- What does it mean to you to be holy? Who are some of the people in your life you see as “holy”?
- The world stands under the cross of the coronavirus this Holy Week. But what personal crosses do you stand under at this time in your life? Listen to the whisper of the wood of your crosses; listen to your losses. What do you hear? What are they teaching you?
- What sorrows have left scars upon your heart?
- Who are the fallen, the forsaken, and the forgotten in your life?
- What have you learned from those who have fallen under the weight of their crosses and losses?
- Our mistakes and missed opportunities are our best teachers. What have you learned from your own stumbles, fumbles, and falls?
- Recall an experience when going through the door of the cross led you deeper into the heart of the paschal mystery.How have you experienced God’s presence in your suffering?
- Who has shared the gift of tears with you recently? Reflect on experiences in your life when another has invited you into her Garden of Gethsemane? What was that experience like for you?
- Whose feet have your washed recently? Who has washed your feet?