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 7
Hope: Waiting at the Gates of Life
Genesis 1, 1, 26-31
Exodus 14, 15 – 15, 1
Isaiah 55, 1-11
Romans 6, 3-11
Matthew 28, 1-10
Holy Saturday readings can be found at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/041120.cfm
The words of author Barbara Johnson have never been more relevant or true than they are this year. She once said, “We’re Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” This year, we don’t know how long Good Friday will last. We don’t know how long we will have to shelter in place and keep our distance. Though we will celebrate Easter Sunday and our belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we will be doing it in virtual space rather than the sacred space of our parish church. All the other signs of Easter life that we associate with the feast—from Easter egg hunts to Easter Parades—will have to be postponed until this pandemic has passed and it is safe for everyone to gather in groups again.
After spending weeks of sheltering in place, many of us can probably resonate with what Annie Lamott writes in one of her books. “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion,” she said. “I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of our kids in our Sunday school, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb: everlasting life and a basket full of chocolates. Now you’re talking!”
Keeping the hope of resurrection alive in a Good Friday world is the work of faith. And so, as we gather at the tomb on Holy Saturday morning, we consider how we might be people of hope and promise in this time of pandemic.
Learn to Love the Darkness
Several years ago, there was an article in Sojourners magazine that when I re-read it recently it struck me as if she was talking about our present time. Rose Marie Berger shared “how terrified of Good Friday and Holy Saturday” she was a child because she believed “in those in-between hours”—from the death of Jesus on Good Friday until the celebration of his resurrection on Easter Sunday—that “God was dead and we were alone in the world.” Berger wrote, “Suddenly, there was no spiritual safety net. Chaos ruled the world and we were defenseless against it. This isolation was nearly unbearable. As an adult, I learned theological mind-tricks to protect me from the fear of God’s ultimate abandonment.”
She wrote this article at a time when in the news there were reports about Mother Teresa writing in her diaries about her “dark night of the soul,” of acknowledging the silence of God that she had experienced in her life—how at times she felt God’s absence more than God’s presence. “This great emptiness,” Berger wrote, “started when Mother Teresa began her ministry with the destitute and dying in Calcutta.” She reports that in Mother Teresa’s early religious life, her prayer reflected “a feeling of great intimacy with God.” She reflected how “God nudged, cajoled, demanded, disciplined, loved and instructed her in each step.” But when she went to work with the poor in Calcutta, “God seemed to recede from the edges of her soul like a great ebb tide disappearing over the horizon.”
For sixteen years, Mother Teresa experienced this isolation, abandonment, and absence of God. But then, according to her diaries, she began the discipline of “smiling at God.” She smiled at God in the emptiness and wrote, “I have come to love the darkness.”
Richard Rohr believes that God “is suffering love.” So, if we are created in God’s image, “and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. How else can we understand the revelation of the cross? In the suffering Christ, God shares our pain.
These days of Holy Week remind us that Jesus is not someone who sits up in the clouds or on the sidelines of our lives observing this pandemic and the pain and suffering it causes from a distance. Rather, he enters our suffering and pain completely. Often during these days, I have thought about that wonderful line from Pope John Paul I. Remember the smiling pope who was our Holy Father for the month of September in 1978? Someone once asked him why he wore a crucifix instead of a traditional pectoral cross. “Why do you have the body of Christ still on the cross?” they asked. “After all, he rose of the dead. Don’t you believe in the resurrection?”
The pope smiled and said something to the effect, “I wear a crucifix because God knows that some of the crosses we carry are too heavy without Jesus on them.”
Our cross is too heavy without Jesus on it. This is why we keep our crucifix at our prayer space. It’s not that we don’t believe in the resurrection. But right now, we need to believe that God is right here in the midst of our suffering with us.
Good Friday may be longer this year that most years. It could stretch weeks and months before we rise from our tombs and are able to return to the table of Eucharist or gather around the picnic tables in the park or gather at the stadiums to watch a ball game. Until that glorious day when we can rise again from our self-isolation, keep that crucifix nearby and know that we are living Paul’s words now in ways we never expected we would: “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
If we were not aware before, we are now.
“Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.” Maybe this is what God is calling us to in a unique and powerful way on this Holy Saturday as we wait before the tomb of Christ, trusting that Christ will rise again. Though we don’t know when, we know we shall also rise again “through a like resurrection.” And, Paul says, “this we know: our old self was crucified with him so that…we might be slaves to sin no longer.”
On this Holy Saturday, like Mother Teresa, we learn to love the darkness. The Easter Vigil begins in darkness. Night invades our soul and we pray for the light. In the deepest darkness, we kindle a new fire and light our candles and raise them high against the night. Though the darkness is deep and very steep for some, this light might only offer a brief glimmer of hope. But hope is all we have.
Keeping Hope Alive
Airports are like empty tombs these days because so many events have been canceled and people have postponed traveling to shelter in place and stop the spread of Covid-19. But before this, I was traveling often and spending a fair amount of time waiting in airports. I remember a few years ago I was flying back to Kansas City from Chicago following a retreat. I had a 9:40 flight. Though it was snowing, I called ahead and was surprised to find out the flight was only delayed an hour. But after several delays, my 9:40 flight was finally cancelled around 11:00. Fortunately, Southwest has several flights to Kansas City during the day, but all of the morning flights were cancelled so if the weather did clear there were sure to be few empty seats on later flights. I called the priest who had dropped me off at the airport to tell him that if I couldn’t get on the 1:40 flight, I may just wait until the next day. He assured me that under the circumstances, it was permissible to start drinking before noon. So, after securing a boarding pass for the 1:40 flight, I took his advice and had a beer and a sandwich that bore a slight resemblance to chicken salad. The flight finally got off the ground around 3:00. So, I was only slightly inconvenienced.
But waiting at the gate for my flight gave me an insight into hope—the kind of hope that Holy Saturday teaches us. Though the hour we would finally take off was up for grabs, the agent at the gate kept telling us we were going to get to our destination that day. It was easier to hope when we knew that sooner or later a plane taking us to Kansas City would arrive. That seemed to be the attitude of most of us waiting at the gate. The agent at the gate kept us informed that a plane was on the way but our hope wasn’t confirmed until it actually appeared at the gate.
“Hope,” Jim Wallis writes, “is often used to refer to something mystical or rhetorical. Hope somehow lies outside the reality in which we live. Hope becomes a feeling or a mood or an inspired moment that is lived somehow above the painful and dull agonies of history.” But hope is not out there somewhere, outside our experience or out of our reach. Hope is something deep within us, covered up perhaps with the dirt and dust of shattered dreams, the remnants of broken relationships, and the sharp edges of grief and guilt. From a biblical perspective, “Hope is the very dynamic of history,” Wallis says. “Hope is the engine of change. Hope is the energy of transformation.” In effect, hope is the gate “from one reality to another.”
This is radical, audacious hope. It is the kind of hope that takes hold of us after Jesus is taken down from the cross and his body is placed in the tomb. It is the kind of hope showed by those who buried Jesus in the tomb of a friend. It is the kind of hope Jim Wallis recalls in his book, The Soul of Politics that occurred on March 13, 1988, at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa. Earlier that day the government banned an anti-apartheid meeting, so word spread quickly that there would a prayer service at the cathedral. It was packed to overflowing, people “surging into the sanctuary like a powerful river of energy, determination, and militant hope.”
As the military forces amassed outside the cathedral, Archbishop Desmond Tutu stood at the pulpit and said: “In the enveloping darkness, as the lights of freedom are extinguished one-by-one—despite all the evidence to the contrary, we have come here to say that evil and injustice and oppression and exploitation embodied in the very nature of apartheid cannot prevail. When all looks hopeless, we must assert and assert confidently that God is in charge.”
Then directing his fiery hope toward the white rulers enforcing the brutal system of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu said: “You are not God, you are mortals. It is God whom we worship and God cannot be mocked. You have already lost. Come and join the winning side!” This was several years before apartheid was abolished but it was voices of hope like Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela that kept the hope alive in the people.
This quality of hope seeks to tap the best in each of us—our truest self. It is a hope that reflects the belief that once the forces of goodness are unleashed against evil and oppression like so many lights in the gathering gloom, the darkness will be overwhelmed.
A couple of years ago, after giving a retreat to our missionaries and associates in Croatia, I spent a few days in Prague in the Czech Republic. One of the places I wanted to visit was the monument in memory of Vaclav Havel, the playwright-poet who became president of the Czech Republic after the fall of the Soviet Union. “Hope,” he said, “is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather the ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
This was certainly the attitude of Archbishop Tutu and the people gathered at that cathedral in Cape Town. Their chances of success were minimal. But still they had hope and this hope became the driving force of good that over time toppled the forces of the evil of apartheid.
Too often we confuse hope with optimism. When I was in college, I remember the great anti-war activist and pastor of the Riverside Church in New York, the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, say in a speech at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, “Hope is born when optimism dies.” I’ve never forgotten that line because it rings with clarity and truth. I am not optimistic about many things these days—especially now as we are in week four of shelter in place and the report was just released as I write this that the death toll from the coronavirus has now surpassed 100,000 around the world. Another headline in the paper proclaimed, “Infections May Spike if Limits Are Eased After 30 Days” of shelter in place. Which suggests we are in for a long haul before we begin to see the end of this pandemic. But the question is not whether or not I’m optimistic. The question is: Do I have hope?
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” Vaclav Havel said. “It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something make sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
The Hope of the Resurrection
A few years ago, there was story on the news from England that became the basis of my homily for Easter Sunday that year. The BBC reported on a retired nurse named Frances Polack who was 85 and living in Hampshire, England. Though she had a “Do Not Resuscitate” order on file, she had taken an extraordinary step to make sure doctors did not prolong her life against her wishes. She got a tattoo across the front of her chest that read, “Do Not Resuscitate.” In explaining her decision to get the tattoo, she felt it was the only way to ensure that doctors take account of her wishes so that they would not try to restart her heart if she went into cardiac arrest. “By resuscitating me,” she said, “they would be bringing me back from the dead only for me to have to go through it again.”
While many can understand Frances Polack’s wishes, followers of Christ are grateful that Jesus did not have “Do Not Resurrect!” tattooed across his chest! Such a DNR order would render Easter meaningless. If Christians did not believe in the power of the resurrection, we would be left with an endless Good Friday with nothing but crosses and losses littering the landscape of our lives. But because Jesus was raised from the dead, we are given a new lease on life—a life that will never end.
God’s advanced directives from the beginning of time offer a holy order that we be people of life not death. From the very beginning of creation, God’s power is directed toward life and light, not death and darkness. The world has more than enough merchants of death, people like Pilate who probably posted guards at the tomb of Jesus with DNR — “Do Not Resurrect” —signs everywhere.
We believe that because Jesus did not have “Do not resurrect” tattooed to his chest but instead had the scars of the crucifixion on his hands, his feet, and his side, we are people of life not death. The resurrection of Jesus reveals, recovers, and restores our true self that we made in God’s image and we are children of God.
Memory and Hope
“One of the great disciplines in any human life is memory,” the poet David Whyte writes, “of remembering what is essential in the midst of our business and busyness. The human soul finds courage from the difficult intimacy of belonging.” On this Holy Saturday, as we sit and watch and wait and pray, we seek to learn this difficult discipline of memory and hope.
Normally we don’t think of memory as a discipline. There are programs that help one to remember names, facts, and figures, so there is a certain discipline involved learning techniques that help us to recall certain people and things in life. But the most important moments of life—death, sickness, loss, moments and rites of passage—are not forgotten. At least, until illness or age robs us of the memory and steals those moments like a thief in the night.
During this Holy Week retreat, we have sought to deepen and widen our memories, the discipline to remember the passion and to participate in the suffering and death of Jesus. We are invited into the Jesus story at various places where certain incidents resonate with our own. Today, especially, as we face this pandemic, we seek to develop the discipline of hope, recalling that Carroll Stuhlmueller once defined hope as “the memory of the future.”
Hope doesn’t mean that we have it together or have all the answers. Hope means that even though we don’t know the answers or even see the light at the end of the tunnel or the tomb, we’re willing to walk with each other from our own sacred spaces, hold each other in prayer, do what we can to help those most severely tested by this coronavirus, continue to trust and know that God is with us and does not abandon us. That together, we may just find even more hope that we could possibly imagine.
In a sermon several years ago at Westminster Abbey in London, Father Michael Lapsley said, “Christians, Moslems, and Jews…the children of Abraham belong to the three great remembering religions. We are committed to remembering not to forgetting. What kind of memory is it that the Bible wishes us to have? It is redemptive memory—the memory of good that comes out of evil, of life that comes out of death. From slavery to freedom in the Promised Land. And the Jesus story—the suffering, betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection to new life.”
Father Lapsley also talked about “another kind of memory—the destructive memory. Many conflicts are kept going from generation to generation by destructive memory. People teach their children to hate because of the poison which is connected to the memory.”
So how do we move from a destructive memory to redemptive memory? “In my experience,” Father Lapsley said, “the key often lies in the role of acknowledgment. So often in families, communities, and nations there is knowledge but no acknowledgment. Once the wrong that has happened has been acknowledged the healing journey can begin.”
Recalling his own experience as a victim of a letter bomb that disfigured him and left him with no hands, Lapsley said, “When something bad is done to us by others, we are victims. If we physically survive, we are survivors. Often people stop there and remain prisoners of moments in history. Many never make the next step: to move from being victims to survivors, to become victors—not in a militaristic sense—but in the Jesus sense: the victim of Good Friday who becomes the victor of Easter day.
Isn’t this the beginning of hope? Hope is written upon our hearts with the stylus of suffering when we remember that we are not alone in our pain. Keeping the memory alive through the telling of the story will not allow the paralysis of fear to settle into our soul.
“Hope begins in the dark,” Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.”
My friends, we won’t give up. We will keep looking for that light as we continue to meet in prayer and linger there awhile. Thank you for meeting across the miles during this retreat. Don’t give up and keep hope alive! May you and you loved have a very Blessed and Joyful Easter season.
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?