You know – sometimes people ask why in Holy Week is the tone of our reflection so unrelentingly gloomy? Why does hope seem so scarce? Why don’t we relieve or punctuate the focus on loss with a bit more of the hope that we know waits for us at Easter? In my experience, people who ask this are not stupid people – nor are they insensitive – neither are they helpless innocents who have never suffered themselves. In fact they may be people who do not need to re-appropriate each year the depth and the cost of the gift which Jesus, God-made-man, gave us in his passion and death. But in fact (despite some) the church, the keeper of our story, does not lead us swiftly to Easter joy, rather she has us walk slowly together through all the sad steps of Holy Week – lingering today at the foot of the cross.
So why do we do this? Why do we linger here in this painful chapter? I believe that there are two things we are to learn in this place. First: we are given a picture of how much God knows and loves us. In the letter to the Hebrews, which we heard read today, the writer says “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” (4:15) Second: This period teaches us to be compassionate to one whom we see as stronger, wiser, and therefore less in need of our concern or even prayer.
So Holy Week is designed to teach us how much we are loved and how important it is to return that love. Holy Week teaches us to receive and return love in a life-giving circle. And the piece of Holy Week where we linger in sorrow is the piece where we receive the love from God which enables us to return our deepened love back to its source.
Now I don’t know about you…but I often forget to pray for those whom I perceive to be stronger. I forget teachers, and spiritual directors and all the other guides in my life regularly. Why? Because I see them as stronger, wiser and more authoritative than I. Each of them seems less in need or prayer than those of us who gather here.
Often, it is only when one of my role models ships into illness or asks for prayer that I think to do so. Now I don’t blame myself for this. I think it is a natural tendency but I am not proud of it either and I think that it is just such an complacent tendency that Holy Week is designed to cure. Because mindful gratitude can move mountains and make this world a better place.
I think I never told you how I became a priest. It was 1992 and the AIDS epidemic in this country had not been brought under control just yet, in fact that that that year (according to AMFAR) it was the leading cause of death in people ages 25-44.
Now, I was working that year as a lay chaplain at St. Luke’s/ Roosevelt/ uptown, and as a chaplain, I found that the people I served there would come, stay a few days and be gone. I would see them once…maybe twice. One of the exceptions to this rule was patients who had AIDS – they stayed a long time.
Now while I was there, I remember one young man who called himself Angel – not “an-hell” but Angel – and he had AIDS; he was dying; though we never spoke of that. We talked about clothes (Angel was a cross-dresser) and often we talked about his mother who was present in his life but to whom he was afraid to tell his diagnosis.
Now, after quite a few visits, Angel asked about my life. I told him about Peter and Andrew and that I had hopes to become a priest. As Winter passed into Spring, we continued these visits touching on the same subjects – and finally it came time for my critical interview with the committee which I mentioned in the midst of the usual conversation. Now a week later when I went to see Angel, he asked how that interview had gone. Oh! Great! I told him, they let me in! “I knew it,” he said. “I prayed for you.” I was blown away…with all his trouble – he remembered me – he had compassion for me. And if things had gone wrong…we would have mourned together. But they didn’t.
And I am here to tell you I am SURE that it is because of his prayer that I am with you today. I can’t tell you what happened to Angel because I left shortly thereafter and once I said goodbye, I never saw him again. But Angel taught me something – don’t forget to pray for the people who seem to be the strong ones in your life – because ALL human beings suffer weakness.
And that is the lesson of Holy Week – that even Jesus, God made man, suffered sorrow, abandonment, pain, and death. And all you and I can do for him is pray.
So when I step down from here, we’ll take some silence… to thank God for taking human form, and to ask God to let Jesus know as he hangs on the cross that we love him, we are with him, we are praying for him. Don’t you worry that it’s 2000 years later, God knows that. Just remember, mindful gratitude can move mountains even to comfort our Lord.