A Suffering God Saves Us and Sends Us Forth
Provincial’s Easter Message
Dear brothers and sisters,
It is many years since I’ve worked in a parish, but I remember well the busy pace of this the holiest of weeks. People coming and going, liturgists preparing for quick liturgical changes, choirs and musicians arranging their music, the air perfumed by dozens of lilies, catechumens and candidates readying their hearts on retreat, and parish staff trying to stay on top of it all! In a typical Holy Week we’d have waved our palms to begin and listened to the first proclamation of the Passion. On Holy Thursday, we’d wash each other’s feet, adore the Blessed Sacrament and depart the unadorned church in silence. On Good Friday, we might walk the Stations in the morning. In the afternoon we’d listen again to the Passion narrative, John’s this time, and quietly venerate the cross. Then on Holy Saturday, we’d wait… eager to celebrate the Vigil with the new Easter fire.
Of course, this year will be different. Most of us are away from work or school, confined to our homes, perhaps with family or perhaps alone. The excitement and anticipation so typical of this week may be absent, replaced for some by monotony or loneliness, and for others anxiety about the future, concern for family and friends, uneasiness about finances.
What are we to make of these days? What wisdom do we find in faith? The eminent German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, offers some insight.
At the end of WWII Moltmann was captured and held prisoner for three years in Belgium, Scotland and England. At the beginning of his imprisonment he writes of feeling completely Godforsaken, to the point of death. Then, one day a Scottish chaplain gave Moltmann a bible, his first. He read disinterestedly until he opened the book to Psalm 39, a psalm of lament, where he found himself. When he read Jesus in Mark’s passion, crying out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, he writes that he began, “…to understand the assailed Jesus because I felt that He understood me in my God-forsakenness; He is the divine Brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with Him on the way to resurrection and life…The suffering God saved me in my sufferings.” From that moment, Moltmann was filled with a hope in Jesus that has never left him.
The essence of Holy Week is found in this hope-filled truth: a suffering God saves us in our sufferings. In the passion we see in Jesus a man who is utterly vulnerable and isolated from all that comforts. In Jesus’ suffering, but especially in his suffering on the cross, God makes an option for the discarded, colonized, imprisoned, missing and murdered ones of our world.
In 1977, after the murder of Fr. Rutilio Grande SJ, by the Salvadoran military, Archbishop Oscar Romero went to the church where the body of his friend was resting. There he grieved for his friend, but he also prayed and spoke with farmers about their suffering at the hands of the government. From then on, he saw the eyes of the crucified Christ in the eyes of the poor of his country.
St. Eugene describes a similar movement in his own life: Can I forget the bitter tears that the sight of the cross brought streaming from my eyes one Good Friday? In that moment he knew he was loved, forgiven, and sent to the poor. It’s for this reason that the only distinctive sign he gave us is the cross: it is the source of our identity and mission, and this week, we’re invited to take it up with him, to stand in the midst of the world’s pain.
Like so many other cities in Canada, Hamilton has seen its frontline services to the poor impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Money is tight and social service staff are simply not as available during the shutdown. The team at St. Pat’s Parish thought they could do something to help, and with the support of the city, they quickly opened up a hygiene and rest station inside the church staffed by young medical and nursing students. Here, the city’s most vulnerable citizens have a warm place to rest, to use the toilet in private, wash up and have a snack, and if they wish, a visit with a volunteer.
In conversations with Oblates and Oblate Associates across the Province, I’ve been humbled by the creative and compassionate response to the spiritual, material, and social needs of the people we serve. The cross of Christ calls us to this; to stand in the midst of the world’s pain and ask, ‘what can we do, how can we respond?’ In a brief meeting this morning, Provincial Council has tasked a COVID-19 working group, to uncover the ways in which Oblates and Associates are responding in these days, to share that good news, and to consider what more might we do?
Social distancing, isolation from friends and family, empty streets and closed churches: the Triduum and the Easter season this year will be unlike any we’ve ever experienced. What remains the same however, is our Oblate call to identify ourselves with those weighed down by fear and anxiety, by loneliness and want, doing what we can to help ease the burden.
May we all be filled with Easter hope,
By Ken Thorson, OMI