By Frank Wessling
In these last days of Holy Week we enter the final drama in the life of Jesus. We go with Jesus through events which remind us that nothing here is to be feared, not suffering, not death, nothing but sin. This is what we believe.
By going with Jesus and remaining with him, we rise with new life in the eternal communion of love.
At least we remember and get into this mindset if we’re paying attention to the calendar of our faith.
According to that calendar we are celebrating the Passover of humanity from the tyranny of flesh, which dies, to the freedom of the Spirit, which leads to life everlasting. For us Christians, these three days before Easter are one extended revival, a recharging of the energy which centers our faith.
It begins today, Holy Thursday, with a celebration of Jesus’ mandate to his disciples. What was — is — that mandate? To show the world that we love one another by serving each others’ needs. To be humble toward every person. To do the most menial tasks for the sake of others’ welfare. To wash the dusty feet of a traveler. To clean the body of the sick and feeble.
In the midst of Mass today we remember two things in particular: the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus, the sacrament of his body and blood, and his insistence that we must imitate him in washing feet. By placing these two elements together, the church makes clear that the mystery of our faith is not simply about waiting for pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye.
We begin each day with a turn toward God in prayer, but the prayer is not complete without stretching out toward each other in service. God loves us singly but wants us all together.
Tomorrow, Good Friday, celebrates the throne that all who follow Jesus’ mandate can expect. It’s the cross, a place of suffering raised up for public display. That’s where our ruler has his palace.
The contrast between Jesus’ crucifixion and the washing of the feet is interesting. In the latter, everything was done in the intimate setting of a last meal where faith and love permeated the scene. Hanging on the cross, Jesus expresses in public the suffering, the letting go, the self-abandonment that is the other side of humble service. Our faith will arise in quiet, interior development, but it grows and spreads through our work of caring for each other.
The person we adore on the cross is THE suffering servant. At the center of our faith is a command to be like him, to love like him, to join him on the way that includes crosses.
But that isn’t all there is. It may feel that way at times, even for a long time. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, we now know from her own writing, went years without feeling the consolation she had expected from her saintly way of life serving the sick and dying poor. She dedicated time to prayer and went daily to minister loving care on people she did not know, getting very little emotional satisfaction from it all, wondering where God was. And then she died.
Her life has echoes of the way Jesus’ suffering is portrayed in the Gospel account of Mark: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” It has echoes in the long ordeals of so many people who give their lives over to months and years of sometimes thankless caring for loved ones. It echoes in the fortitude required to maintain a spark of life through difficulties in marriage.
Suffering is not the last word, though; not for those who have begun to live in faith. The faith has united them, united us, to Jesus in such a way that where he goes, we go.
Since the Gospel tells us that his joy will be ours, we need to realize that his joy is not separate from his way of service. That service may feel like suffering, but only as we try to hang on to something: our time, our money, and our attention elsewhere, perhaps our preconceptions. When that grasping for the “old” self is given up, when we hand over our spirit entirely, as Jesus does, the new life, the new self is free to rise.