Around One Table

Holy Thursday commemorates the institution of the Eucharist and offers a fitting occasion to honor the ministerial priesthood. The following poem by John Kinsella eloquently expresses core asceticism of that vocation.

In the Rite of Christian Baptism we were all anointed with chrism as priest, prophet and king. All the baptized are called to offer prayer, give expression to the Word and to roles of servant-leadership.

Today, all the baptized find a place around one table…

for priests in these difficult times

the day you were called
to break bread for a living
was the day you were called
to be broken.

the days you spent bending over bread
are spent around a mystery of fraction.

if you are indeed broken,
you need to gather up each other’s fragments gently,
and remember how, again through you,
He feeds so many with so little.

–  John Kinsella
(from commonweal 2-9-96)


We are all guilty.  Yes, we craft sophisticated excuses and feign innocence.  We dance in self-defense.  Excuses abound.  Denial and rationalizations flurry forth.  At its most painful, nothing hurts more than betrayal in relationship.

On this Wednesday in Holy Week we presented with the figure of Judas Iscariot.  We know well his selfishness, smallness and fate.  He betrayed his friend for a bag of silver.  We do well to sit with his story, his truth, our story.

Don’t flee the poignancy of his betrayal.  But it is not his alone. Virtually all of Jesus’ friends and companions betray him, abandon him.  We are given the image of only a few women, John the Beloved Disciple and his mother who hang with Jesus to the end.

At least Judas knew his motivations and followed through with his intentions. Perhaps the more reprehensible betrayal was delivered by Peter.  Not only did he flee, he adamantly denied that he even knew the man.  Imagine the pain!

The issue is not whether or not we betray Jesus.  The issue is what we do next.  Judas despaired!  Peter ultimately professes his love.

Wednesday in Holy Week places us precisely in this “moment”, challenges us with our “truth”, presents us with our own story.  Our journey continues…

Getting What We Need

We don’t always get what we want or expect! Generally, we get what we need.

I anticipated a typical Holy Week attending Triduum liturgies at church with an eye to our family gathering Sunday afternoon. That shifted last weekend with news of yet another death in my family which refocused attention to all this week holds.

Most people know today as Tax Day. To me April 15 was always the day on which the only Grandpa I ever knew died on his 75th birthday. I was hit by a car on that same day and was not able to join the rest of the family at his funeral (actually this 5 year-old welcomed the attention and notoriety). Later a sister-in-law who shared this birthday joined the family. Today I am en route to her wake this evening and her funeral tomorrow.

It’s quite an intense week… April 12 was the birthday of another sister-in-law who, who I knew since I was 5 years-old, who died at age 62. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my Grandma Wieseler’s death – our beloved matriarch who transformed her ride on the “orphan train” at age 7 into a maternal love for an expansive family that still displays her photo in our family rooms. April 20, Easter this year, is the 21 anniversary of my Dad’s death.

Grief is in the air as I embark on a “way of the cross” I did not request or anticipate.

My friend Susan Stable offers wise counsel on her blog today [link]. She recalls Ignatius of Loyola’s invitation in his Spiritual Exercises. During Holy Week we are to be with Christ in his suffering, to extend compassion, attend to emotions evoked by a loved one en route to his death. To the extent we are willing and able we are, as Susan quotes, to follow Jesus in “his choices, his anguish, his truth, his desires, his aloneness, his sense of the absence of God.”

So I am en route, traveling. Last evening I indulged a rare opportunity to share a meal with a nephew and his great family in Sioux Falls. As the evening waned, the three kids peeled off leaving Dean and me the space to tell stories and share memories. I will be staying with a sister in Omaha – another rare opportunity holding more stories, memories.   Having gathered for Joyce’s funeral earlier in the day, I’ve made plans to attend the baseball game of a 7 year-old grand-nephew. Denny in one I don’t know well and, as a middle child, I too easily overlook.

Holy Thursday will be in my family’s hometown with a brother I have not seen since the last family funeral nearly two years ago. On Good Friday morning I will go to my parents’ grave in that town’s cemetery to say a simple prayer. Lyrics I stumbled upon last weekend echoing still, “there are things you cannot hold but the heart carries”.

I did not anticipate or ask for the events of this week. Life teaches us to trust that we are given what we need. Later, not now, I will look forward to the drive home this weekend, celebrating Easter in the familiar embrace of my church and Minnesota family.

For now I am en route – attending as best I am able to the grief, the compassion, the pain, the love, the journey, the companionship that is Holy Week.

Lyrics cited are from Amberstone by Sarah Thomsen.

Fragrance of Palms

Each year I was caught off guard, then delighted, when Mom and Dad hauled us off to church and we got something special which we could actually take home. Although we weren’t allowed to play with the palms, we were encouraged in the whimsical craft of weaving intricate braids. Scraps were transformed into miniature crosses.

Our best handiwork would adorn the crucifix which hung in our living room or atop the ornate gold frame encasing the Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon which my maternal grandparents received as a wedding gift in 1895. That crucifix and icon are two of my most precious possessions today holding places of honor in our home.

I recall being awestruck upon learning that the dusty dry palms of the previous year were burned to provide the ashes for Ash Wednesday. That was another favorite day because, like Palm Sunday, we got a “freebie” in the form of an exotic smudge on our faces. Like incense, the distinctive fragrance of palm and ash still transport me to the realm of the Holy.

Growing up with the liturgical fanfare of St. Cecilia Cathedral prepared me well for the rarefied studies at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, MA. Much time and energy were expended on the proper form of gathering a worshipping community out-of-doors for festive procession into church with palms waving overhead. We were instructed in the art of eliciting the effusive emotions appropriate for welcoming royalty. Liturgical rubrics were given full throttle with roles carefully orchestrated – much like most wedding ceremonies today.

Nothing – absolutely nothing – prepared me for the first Palm Sunday liturgy at which I presided. Freshly transplanted from the environs of Harvard Square, I found myself atop Cuny Table on the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota. A typical Sunday had me making a 100 mile loop for services at three “mission” churches – first Porcupine, then Red Shirt and finally Cuny Table. Anywhere from three to twelve people would be present for each service.

This particular Sunday I carried a bundle of moist palms along with all the usual supplies needed for Eucharist. As I had done at the two previous sites, I unlocked the church and set up for my third Mass of the morning. Someone else dutifully came the evening before to light the propane heater so our gathering space would be warm. This morning was fresh, crisp and bright. Perched near the edge of Cuny Table we were treated to breath-taking views of the Badlands that became easy to take for granted.

The white Gothic church worthy of Grant Woods stood like a sentinel amid the brown stubble pasture nearly barren from winter grazing. We stalwart eight fumbled with logistical practicalities but we made it happen! We’d begin our prayer outdoors and solemnly process just as others were doing in Cambridge, MA or Omaha’s Cathedral. These proud Lakota Catholics held strong to the faith of Red Cloud. As the one presiding, my unique obligation was protecting the palms from grazing cattle – they did yield their pasture to us one hour each week and we were in possession of the greenest plant they’d seen in nine months!

Each of the twenty years since, the sight and smell of palms transports me back to that very grace-filled moment on Cuny Table. More than esoteric discussions in Boston classrooms, the faith of these stalwart descendents of Red Cloud taught me what is important about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit,if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! (Phil 2:1-8)

As if perched atop Cuny Table, our Gothic churches need to hover the edges and peripheries of our winter-barren world. All creation is hungry for what people of humble faith have to offer. Our palms are not intended for some Victorian braid propped behind ancient symbols. Fresh, we wave them today in sober jubilation – aware of the sacred journey we commence.

What Really Matters

God must find us very tedious at times! Yesterday I overheard a media report speculating whether an image reflected in a rain drop was truly an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Oh, for God’s sake – literally! I also find pious fascination, bordering on obsession, with items such as the Shroud of Turin to be a distraction and pointless. All we are given in Scripture is an empty tomb – no witnesses to the “big event”!  We are given faith-filled encounters of people who experienced one who was dead to now be alive! That’s where we must look as well – to our own intimate encounter with the Risen One.

There is some buzz these days about the authenticity of a papyrus fragment suggesting that Jesus may have been married. The “evidence” comes from the discovery of a document from somewhere between the 4th and 8th centuries in which Jesus is quoted as referring to “my wife.” Oh, for God’s sake! Does it really matter? Preoccupation with such questions – important and necessary as they are from a scholarly perspective – is a distraction from what we really should be about during Holy Week. Ultimately, Jesus’ marital status doesn’t really matter to the faith we proclaim!

I am convinced that the overwhelming evidence combined with 2000 years of tradition and the near universal consensus of biblical scholars makes clear that Jesus was not married. Fr. James Martin, SJ offers a cogent defense for this position in the current issue of America magazine. I highly recommend it for its clarity, balance and brevity [link]. 

I hope never to be paranoid, often catch myself being cynical, but invite the charge of being skeptical. Do you see more than coincidence in the big media splash given to this “old news” – from at least 2012 – at the very beginning of Holy Week? I’m not suggesting anything sinister! It’s likely just good PR to hype the report when it will get the most coverage. Would you agree that this “news” would be received differently if it had been released during the week leading up to the Fourth of July!

Rather than pointing a finger at “faithless media” or blaming secularists waging “culture wars” we should really direct that finger at ourselves. Use the media report as an occasion to reflect upon and potentially deepen our faith — in what really matters!  Especially this week… Where do we look for evidence of the resurrection? …to an empty tomb? …to the testimony of others? …to physical evidence? Do we look for it in the past? …in other people’s stories? If so, we are bound to be disappointed. We are so easily distracted by trivia and non-essentials.

Yes, we have the testimony of others. However, these are only intended to lead us to an immediate and intimate encounter with the Risen One precisely where we are most in need of a savior… here, now, today! Don’t be distracted.

The “big event” doesn’t happen in an empty tomb outside Jerusalem!


Time Out of Time

Think of all the moments in your life when time stood still. How long did you hold your newborn when she first emerged? How long did that moonlit walk last on the night you realized you were in love? How long did you sit in the waiting room watching the door each time it opened, willing the surgeon to come out with good news?

With these supple and striking images Anna Keating conjures moments of “time out of time” when we feel profoundly alive, grounded in the depths of our humanity. We all know them – such time “does not obey the ordinary rhythms of minutes and hours” but rather “burst the bonds of time.” Keating reminds us of the ancient Greek understanding of chronos and kairos. Chronos is measured by a clock and has specific parameters like the time it takes to read this blog. Kairos is that supple “time out of time” — that “due season”, an irreplicable moment of opportunity, or irrefutable flash of clarity and purpose.

Christians are invited to enter such “time out of time” during the Triduum, the “three days” from sundown Holy Thursday through the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. These three days carry a rhythm that breathes like a single day! Triduum is time to stop, be quiet, tend the silence, gather, prepare and pray. Keatings’ blog post is valuable reading [link]. I gratefully cite it nearly two weeks prior to Holy Thursday to reiterate Keating’s essential point: keeping Triduum warrants our anticipation and deliberate planning.

Yes, participation in the liturgies at our churches is to be highly recommended! It compounds our experience to share the dynamic flow of these liturgies with the same community of seekers. But this is not an endurance test nor is anyone keeping attendance – show up as you are able! Savor the magnificent rituals, but don’t depend on them exclusively! How do you wish to enter Triduum? How can you better dispose yourself to a kairos experience transcending the “chronology” posted in a schedule or texts printed in a missal? Of course, show up even if it all comes down to the last moment — grace happens! But, given the chance, be deliberate. Be choiceful. Be generous with yourself. Embrace the opportunity. Plan ahead.

The world was stunned by Pope Francis washing the feet of lay people on Holy Thursday last year, women as well as men and even a Muslim. We are two weeks out! We all would do well to stretch the rubrics and transcend tired rituals.  Whose feet deserve to be washed this year? Whose feet would you like to see washed? How might you “wash” these feet whether within a liturgy or with other gestures outside of the church’s time-honored ritual?  Maybe, especially for us control-freaks, we need to allow someone else to figuratively but profoundly “wash” our feet.

Good Friday invites us to walk with Jesus through his passion and death. Scripture for each of the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross are available [here]. With which point along the Way do you especially identify this year? Why is that? Get up-close-and-personal with Jesus in that resonant kairos moment. Do you identify with a particular character in the passion narrative? Be that person for someone outside of church – carry someone’s cross for a while, wipe the sweat and blood of someone suffering. Maybe you know what it is like to fall multiple times.  Go with your heart – it knows where your kairos beckons.

Easter Vigil is the traditional time for Baptism. Do you know the date of your Baptism? Give your godparents a call and wish them Happy Easter. Take some time to consider what your Baptism has meant to you. They say faith is not so much taught as it is caught. When, why and where did you “catch” your faith? Jesus knew in the Garden that he had a “baptism” yet to undergo. What “agony” are you enduring?  What “baptism by fire” is awaiting you? How does Jesus’ dying and rising strengthen you for what lies ahead?

Regardless of the season of the year or the liturgical calendar, when have you experienced “Easter”? What would Easter look-like for you this year? Mary of Magdala thought Jesus was the gardener – how might the Risen One choose to appear to you in kairos time this year?

What would make time stand still?  You know what you need – make it happen. We’ve got time!