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 6
Solidarity: Standing at the Cross
Isaiah 52, 13-53,12
Hebrews 4, 14-16; 5, 7-9
John 18, 1 – 19, 42
Good Friday readings can be found at http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/041020.cfm
We never forget the last words a loved one speaks before he or she dies. My Mom will always remember my brother’s last words to her: “Goodbye, Mom.” She was leaving for the parish where she served as a secretary. She did not realize Ed’s goodbye that day meant, “It is finished.” That the many years he struggled with paranoid schizophrenia were over and his mental illness was terminal. A couple of hours later, he was dead by suicide. This year, Good Friday, April 10, would have been my brother Ed’s 71st birthday. Ed was 38 when died on June 8, 1987.
I had my sister Mary’s last words to me—they were texts—saved on my phone. But when I got a new phone, I somehow deleted them. I was living in California when my younger sister died and it seemed when I was in the Midwest to give a retreat in the months before Mary got sick, we were both too busy to connect. One of her last texts said something like, “Hey, Joe, sorry I am gonna miss you again. Hopefully our paths will cross before Thanksgiving! Love ya, Mar.” Then she wrote a PS. Mary, like me, was a big St. Louis Cardinal fan but they were having a lousy summer that year. So, her last words were, “Cards stink.”
I did text her on her birthday and she sent a brief “Thanks—we’re having a great time.” And then the last one was two weeks before she was taken to the hospital. I had texted about something and she texted back, “Hope all is well with you!”
Those were Mary’s last words to me. Everything was not well with Mary because by the time I got to the hospital, she was in a coma. Her words about our paths crossing before Thanksgiving came true—I stood by her cross in the ICU and prayed with her, her fiancé, her son, my Mom and family. But Mary was not able to speak and on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010, she died. Mary was 47.
“It is Finished”
The last words Jesus speaks from the cross—the famous Seven Last Words that has become, like the Stations of the Cross, a popular Catholic devotion—capture the life of Jesus. We have three of them in John’s account of the Passion.
His last words are, “It is finished.” Before he speaks these three little words to punctuate his life on earth, the words he speaks are both moving and mundane. He movingly says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and to his best friend and beloved disciple, “Behold your mother.” A son on his death-cross taking care of his Mom and asking his best friend to make sure she will be okay is a powerful expression of Jesus’ desire to make sure those he loves are not alone after he dies.
But he also says, “I thirst.” This is something each of us says or thinks many times a day. “I’m thirsty.” It can refer a simple request to quench our thirst; but here it evokes a deeper meaning of our souls thirsting for God when our lives are suffering a drought, dry as a bone, and yearning for the refreshing, life-giving streams of mercy and compassion.
When I hear those words, “I thirst,” I think of Father Rich Kolega, one of our priests, who died during Holy Week in 1995. I saw him in the hospital a few days before his death, and his lips were chapped and his mouth parched. He motioned with his eyes to the pitcher of water on the table by his bed. There was a glass there with a straw and I moved the straw to his lips and ever so slightly he drew in a sip of water. “I thirst.”
It wasn’t water but a vinegar-soaked sponge the soldiers shoved to Jesus’ burning lips. But then he says his last words, “It is finished.” Jesus has accomplished what he came to do—to spark a new movement that would change the world; but even more, to show the world how to live, how to love, how to forgive.
Good Friday places us at the cross—at the foot of all the crosses and losses of our lives. On Good Friday, we gather around the common ground of our suffering and sorrow. Not only our personal and communal losses, but we seek to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer in the world today, especially those who have died from Covid-19, those struggling for every breath to stay alive, the families and friends who are grieving loved ones claimed by the coronavirus, and all those who will die today.
Today, the day Christ died, is the day for each of us to bring to the cross our lives—our love and our loss, our dreams and disappointments, our pain and promise, our anguish and grief. On a normal Good Friday, we would venerate the cross in church. It is one of the most prayerful, poignant, and powerful rituals we have as a people of faith. We are at our best as a Church when we wash each other’s feet on Holy Thursday and when we stand with one another around the cross on Good Friday.
Many of us kiss the cross and this intimate gesture speaks of our desire to unite our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ; our pain with the pain of Christ. And though we are sheltering in place and practicing social distance this year during this time of pandemic, take down the crucifix from the wall, and hold it in your hands. Whether we kiss the cross, or just hold it, do it with intention as a sacred gesture of solidarity, with particular people and prayers, names and events in our minds and hearts.
Knock on Wood
Another possibility for reverencing the cross today is one I have used often on retreats. It came to mind several years ago when visiting one of our priests who had been diagnosed with cancer. He told me the doctors were optimistic that they would be able to operate and remove the cancer. And then he knocked on wood. It was a gesture we use often when we are hoping for the best or hoping against hope: we knock on wood.
Today is a good day to knock on wood of the cross.
His gesture sent me on a search of the origin of that phrase. I found a variety of explanations. Evidently it is such a common phrase in so many cultures that giving credit where credit is due for originating the idea of knocking on wood is difficult. For example, many years before Christ, some cultures believed that spirits resided in trees. These were the spirits that would protect and guard one’s home, family, and village. People would knock on the trunk of a tree to wake the spirits. Knocking on wood was an attempt to make the spirits aware of a person’s need for protection. It was a way to engage the spirits’ help in a time of crisis.
Christians, of course, believe the phrase, “knock on wood” refers to the cross. The phrase connects with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. One writer suggests that in some traditions “Jesus was crucified on wood from the tree of paradise, and that wood has been venerated over the centuries.”
Some people think that when we “knock on wood” we are being superstitious. But I would propose that knocking on wood is not a silly superstition but a sacred gesture of belonging. In the school of hard knocks, this is what we do. We knock on the door of the church and say, “We want to belong to this community of faith.” We knock on the wood of the cross and say, “We believe in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to save me.”
The cross is the door to the very heart of God. And we bring to the door of the cross today the names of those who have died, whose last words linger in our minds because they are etched forever upon our hearts.
We bring to the cross whatever loneliness we feel from this self-isolation we have experienced the last few weeks because of the coronavirus. We bring whatever brokenness we feel, whatever doubt, whatever fears. Bring to the cross today the names of the sick, the lonely, the dying. Bring the poor, the imprisoned, the invisible ones we used to pass each day without acknowledging their presence. Because here at the foot of the cross, the blood of Christ desires to draw all peoples near.
Bring here to the cross those dreams that have died, those relationships that have grown cold, those people we find difficult to love. Take your time, lay your burdens down—and your blessings too, and know you are not alone.
For on this day, we stand by the cross of Jesus “with his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdala.” We stand with the brave women who followed Jesus and did not count the cost. We stand with mothers—and fathers—who have lost children. I read somewhere, “The death of a child is every parent’s worst fear. Even our language makes it difficult to talk about: we can speak of widows and orphans but have no word for people who have lost a child.” Whatever word that might be, for my Mom it would be plural.
We stand at the cross today with the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” We stand with all the lonely, the forsaken, and the forgotten. We stand here with those longing for relationship, longing for community, longing for a cure, longing for compassion. We stand here with those who are in harm’s way, with those the terminally ill and the terrified.
We stand at the cross today with the millions who are out of work because of this pandemic, with those who stand in line at the unemployment office or the food pantry. We stand here with our children, the students and the school children unable to see their classmates and friends because of social distancing, especially those who were looking forward to their first prom or their graduation ceremony. We stand here with those who are abused which makes this time of self-isolation even more dangerous; and with those who are depressed and desperate.
This is the day, the day Christ died, when we believe that when Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross and uttered those famous last words, “It is finished,” he drew everyone near to his heart, the broken heart, of God. When we place our pain and suffering at the cross, we place it in something larger than ourselves for when God’s heart breaks, our pain finds a home.
Here, standing at the cross, we bring our lives and know: we are not alone.
Love Among the Ruins
Take some time today and read the Passion of John. The gospel of John traces how the life of Jesus that ultimately led to his crucifixion is a proclamation of truth. Here we see Jesus’ integrity. In this interrogation by Pilate, Jesus states emphatically and unambiguously his life’s purpose: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” For boldly living this truth, Jesus is condemned and crucified.
The first reading on Good Friday is from the prophet Isaiah, the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant, which foreshadows the experience of Jesus on the cross. The prophet sings of the servant who “grew up like a sapling…like a shoot from the parched earth.” And how the servant “was spurned and avoided by people, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity.” But “it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured.” The prophet confirms for us that Jesus “was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.”
The Letter to the Hebrews echoes our belief in a God who did not hold the world at arm’s length but rather chose to save the world by entering fully the human condition. “In the days when Christ was in the flesh,” Hebrews says, “he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.” Because Jesus was born into this world, he knows what we suffer. He can “sympathize with our weaknesses.” Because of this empathy and compassion, we can “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”
I recall someone once saying that integrity can only come out of disintegration. When a dream disintegrates, or a relationship ruptures, or death takes someone we love, we are left to sift through the ruins, the memories, and the stories that remind us why this dream, this relationship, the person was so important to us in the first place. We learn the truth of our lives by what we are willing to suffer—and maybe even die—for the sake of our truth.
Good Friday is a good day to remember those dreams that have died, those relationships that have faltered, those people who have died and to place them here at the foot of the cross. Because today the face of God takes on the human face of anguish and suffering and sorrow. Today, God stands with us in the wreckage and the ruins of our lives.
Our ancestors believed that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden on a Friday which is why Jesus was crucified on a Friday. But why do we call it good? Because today is all about grace. We see the fullness of grace reflected in a human being loving other human beings so much that he is willing to die so that others might live. This is not just a spur-of-the-moment act of bravery but God looking at all the options and saying, “There is no other way to save the world.” Brute strength won’t convince a world where only the strong survive. Power won’t influence a people where the quest for power is all consuming. Money isn’t the answer since money can’t buy time or love.
Only love will win the day. Only someone willing to atone for the sins of others will turn the tidal wave of sin. There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for others.
We gaze upon the cross of Christ, we kiss the cross of Christ, and we embrace the cross of Christ and find God’s redeeming grace.
The Garden of Good and Evil
Still, I find it interesting that if Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden occurred on Friday, that it is fitting that John’s story of Jesus’ passion begins and ends in a garden. “Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley to where there was a garden.” John reports that Judas knew this place “because Jesus had often met there with his disciples.”
The same motivation of selfishness and sin, of pride and perhaps greed that led to Adam and Eve’s eviction from the garden in Genesis leads to Jesus’ arrest in the garden in John’s Gospel. And after he is tried and tortured, convicted and executed, John notes that “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried.” Like the first creation that began with a garden, so the new creation will also come from a garden.
But a garden is not the only place the grace of God takes us on this Good Friday. God’s grace also takes us to places we’d rather not go but feel compelled to go and pray. The place where we go today is reminiscent of a gathering several years ago of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Sufi Muslims on the grounds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. They met at these places of death, evil, and unspeakable horror to make a retreat and to pray. According to one of those on the retreat, “every morning they walked an hour from Auschwitz where they slept, to Birkenau where they gathered on the railroad tracks at the center of the camp.” This was the place where the trains from all over Europe would unload and sort their human cargo. Birkenau was the place where “the sick were separated from the healthy, the homosexual from the heterosexual, the children from their parents.”
It was November when these 150 people came from ten countries and four world religions to sit down in the snow and remember the dead. They formed a large ellipse about seventy-five yards long and sat in silent meditation twice a day, “their breath curling up around their heads in the cold air.” According to one of the participants, their “purpose was to bear witness to what happened in that place, but it was also to listen for the ways in which those events still echo in our lives today.”
What echoes do we hear as we gather around the cross to pray and to remember the death of the one who brought all people who were separated and distant and apart near through the blood of his cross?
Hanging on the Gallows
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell where he would die for his resistance to the Nazis, “To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way…but to be a person—the person that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian but participation in the sufferings of God.”
This is what we are invited to do today: to enter more deeply into the sufferings of Christ.
In times like these, when the world is overwhelmed by this pandemic, when we are stalked each day by fear and grief, there are those who ask, “Where is God?” in all of this suffering and death. Good Friday, the day Jesus died, responds to that question for me. Where is God? God is right here with each of us at the cross of his son, Jesus.
When I was privileged to travel to Poland three years ago to give a series of conferences on Precious Blood spirituality to our missionaries there, I spent a day at Auschwitz. It was one of the more moving experiences in my life. I have rarely been in a place where there were so many people and absolute stillness. No one dared to speak because the echoes of Auschwitz are heard down through the decades.
Elie Wiesel was a survivor and one of those who taught the world that we must never forget the suffering caused by the evil of the Holocaust. He was sent to Auschwitz when he was 15 years old. His memoir of surviving Auschwitz, Night, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Reading it for the first time in college seared my soul with unforgettable images. But the most vivid image was that of two men and a young boy being hanged while the entire camp was forced to watch. Because of the weight of the two men, they died quickly. But because he was so light, the boy struggled between life and death for half an hour.
“As the boy, after a long time, was still in agony on the rope,” Wiesel writes, “I heard the man behind me cry, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer, ‘Here he is—he is hanging on the gallows.’”
One can interpret that image as the death of God on the gallows of human evil. But what today proclaims is that young Jewish man who dies on the gallows, on a cross, outside the Holy City of Jerusalem where they dumped the garbage of the city, dies in solidarity with all those today who will die of Covid-19, by suicide, by gun violence, in St. Louis and Syria, in Kansas City and Ho Chi Minh City, in New York and New Orleans, in the emergency room and ICU, at the homeless shelter and the prison, the nursing home and on the highway.
Today is the day when God’s heart is broken. “In Jesus,” Jesuit William Barry writes, “God saves us by becoming so vulnerable that we are able to kill him in a vile and humiliating way. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus assure us that God’s offer of friendship will never be withdrawn, no matter what we do. If the cross did not result in a withdrawal of the offer, then nothing we do will lead to a change of God’s heart.”
The Sign of the Cross
I want to conclude with a story about finding faith at the foot of the cross. There was a young man training to be an Olympic diver. Faith was a gift long deferred to this young man whose parents were practicing atheists. The only religious influence was his college roommate was a devout Christian. His friend was often trying to get the young diver to go church with him, but the young diver politely refused.
One night the diver went to the indoor pool at the college. The lights were off, but the pool had large skylights and the moon was bright so there was plenty of light for him to practice his dives. He climbed to the highest diving board and as he turned his back to the pool, standing on the edge of the board, he extended his arms out. As he did, he saw his shadow on the wall. The shadow of his body was in the shape of a cross. He stepped away from the edge and knelt down. For the first time in his life, he prayed. He asked for the gift of faith. As he was kneeling on the board, a maintenance worker walked in and turned on the lights. When the diver looked down, he could not believe his eyes: the pool had been drained for repairs. The young diver had not seen the sign: No Diving – Pool Closed for Repairs. But standing on the edge of the diving board that night with arms outstretched, he saw the sign that saved his life.
The young diver seeing his shadow, the shadow of the cross on the wall, was a moment of grace, of recognition, of redemption. In that moment of truth, like the centurion who, seeing the way Jesus died on the cross professed, “Surely this one was the Son of God,” the diver found the gift of faith.
I have never found my faith in God so strong as when I have stood at the foot of the cross with my Mom and my family mourning the death of my brother, my sister, my father. Today, in the pain and anguish, the death and fear caused by Covid-19 pandemic, may we find our place in the broken heart of God. As we stand in solidarity across the miles at the foot of the cross, as we touch or kiss or knock on the wood of the cross, may we know deep in our hearts and that we too have found a home and we are not alone.
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?