Dear Members of the Fordham Community,
Peace of Christ.
Let me begin with an embarrassing confession. How embarrassing? Very embarrassing. At least for a Jesuit. Here goes. I always approach Holy Week with a mixture of eager longing and dread. There. I said it. Eager longing and dread. I know that you will say that that is a very strange combination of feelings, and I would agree. And yet. And yet, it is the awful truth. You will, of course, ask why I feel this way whenever I see Holy Week roaring toward me on the liturgical calendar.
And of course, Holy Week is closely linked by the calendar to Passover, the first night of which is celebrated on Wednesday evening. Thus, this month we have two spring observances of loss and redemption from two Religions of the Book. A symbol of the universality of faith and love.
But back to Holy Week: The truth behind the confession that I just shared with you is this: I know (and I suspect that you know it as well) that Holy Week and the Passion (the narrative that lies at its heart) are filled with shadows and wrenching emotional pivots. You know what I mean. From Palm Sunday to Spy Wednesday to Holy Thursday to Good Friday to Holy Saturday, we face and wrestle with displays of cruelty contending with tenderness, warm friendship answered by bitter betrayal, professions of undying support followed by abandonment, honesty squaring off with intrigue, hope fighting for the upper hand against despair, and love locked in (mortal) combat with deadening cynicism.
And so, I enter Holy Week with my eyes wide open, and with the understanding that once I step over its threshold on Palm Sunday, there is no turning back. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Therefore, I face the emotional and spiritual roller coaster that it promises with that mixture of eager longing and dread that I told you about a few minutes (or sentences) ago. I really do. You may, of course, say that having read what I just shared with you, you understand the “dread” part of my confession and then ask me how I could possibly look forward to the ordeal (and it really is an ordeal) with eager longing. The simple answer is that I can’t help myself. I just can’t. The love that stands at the center of the Passion accounts (and thus drives all of Holy Week) is so commanding, and its ultimate triumph so consoling that I can’t resist it. I simply can’t. (And I suspect that you can’t resist it either. Admit it. If I can come clean, so can you. And while we are about the work of telling the truth to one another, I should also tell you that I also look forward to Holy Week with deep, heartfelt longing because I know that although the Passion is timeless and unchanging, it surprises me every year by revealing more and more about the love that lies at its core. Therefore, to borrow a phrase from Saint Augustine, it is “ever ancient, ever new”; and I thirst for the newness that God has in store for me every year, and especially this year.)
And so, on this Palm Sunday morning, once again I will step across the threshold of Holy Week with eager longing and dread. Normally, I would enter the Week in the company of a great throng of other believers and be buoyed up, consoled, and strengthened by their faith. Normally, I would enter with holy dread holding a bit of the upper hand over eager longing. Normally I would pause before plunging into the Week to ask for the grace to walk with the Lord Jesus with unflinching courage. Normally. But this year and this Holy Week are anything but normal. We will not find ourselves in the company of large throngs. We will enter it and walk through it in a solitary way. We will all of us enter it with more longing than usual. Longing for companionship with the Lord. Longing for comfort. Longing for love. For my part, I must confess that this year I will change the prayer for grace that I normally utter on Palm Sunday morning. This year, I will pray for the grace to feel and know that the Lord is walking with me—and with all of us as we walk through our shared experience of the very real human passion/suffering that we find ourselves wrestling with.
If experience has taught me anything about what will be the highlight of this year’s Holy Week, it is this: that by the end of the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, I will be exhausted. Wrung out. And as I have always done in the moments of exhaustion that follow the Good Friday liturgy and extend into the quiet of Holy Saturday, I will stand, sit, or kneel before the image of the Pieta in the thirteenth Station of the Cross in the University Church. As I do, I will hear over and over in my head the haunting words and music of the Passiontide hymn “O Sacred Head Surrounded.” In this contemplative moment, (after the semi-cinematic sweep of the events of Holy Week has passed) I will gaze at Mary, the Mother of Sorrows. I will look at her face and see there the unfathomable sorrow of a mother suffering the shock of seeing her Son die “out of order,” that is, before her. I will gaze at her hands as she cradles her Son with what one of the Advent prefaces calls “love beyond all telling.” And in that moment, I will (as I always do) see the price and yes, the triumph of the redeeming love of God, who always chooses to walk with His people and share their sufferings. This year, I will also meditate on and make my own these words that come from the Rite of Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer: “Most Gracious God, we give You thanks for Your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.” The cost and triumph of love.
I may be wrong, but I believe (and believe with all my heart) that the Pieta is the image for this year’s Holy Week, a week during which so many of our friends will struggle with and/or die of COVID-19. Therefore, once again I hope that you will not mind if I ask a favor of you. Close your eyes. Then, see in your mind’s eye one of our sisters or brothers who is dying without the comforting presence and warm embrace of his or her family in the moment of fear or dread in which they need them most. Be present to that person. Cradle them with your prayers. Be fervent. Be bold in your prayer. Ask the Mother of Sorrows to join you as a companion in prayer. Let the power of love triumph in that moment of prayer.
Be assured of my prayers for you and all whom you love during this most solemn Week. May it be a week during which the Lord walks with you and reveals ever more fully the depth of His love for you. And for our Jewish families and loved ones celebrating the liberation from Pharaoh’s bondage, I pray that you also are liberated from fear, from illness, and from the loneliness that this pandemic spring has brought to all of us.
Prayers and blessings,
Joseph M. McShane, S.J.
A Prayer in the Midst of the Present Crisis
God of all mercies, grant:
To the Fordham family, safety and good health:
To those afflicted with COVID-19, swift healing;
To the frightened, courage;
To the dying, comfort;
To the dead, eternal life;
To health-care providers, strength and stamina;
To our leaders, wisdom and compassion;
To our nation, unity of purpose;
To the Church, the grace to serve the suffering selflessly;
To all believers, strong faith in Your presence;
To the whole human family, unity of heart; and
To us, Your servants, the reward of knowing that we are doing Your will when we spend ourselves in loving service of others.