Holy Week: To Enter the Suffering

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

Who would willingly come to this threshold? With all society’s promises of happiness and fulfillment beckoning at every bend, who would choose to enter this week of suffering? Who would sit at the table of bread being broken, feeling the horrible tension of a body almost broken too? Who would be a witness at the cross of injustice, suffering, and grief? Who would go to the tomb to revisit the despair and dread, to face what can happen even to you who dare to challenge the systems of power?

We come to this Holy Week threshold precisely because most suffering in our lives and in our world is not what we would choose. We do not want to lie in a hospital bed, or sit beside one. We do not want to witness chronic poverty, or the impact of war, or the rubble of another natural disaster. We do not welcome the loss of a broken relationship, a miscarriage, the death of a loved one, or a layoff. It does not ease the pain to remind us how part of being human is to experience suffering; how loss is an inevitable part of life.

Most of the time we avoid pain at all costs. I take Tylenol at the first sign of a headache. I avoid the risks that could cause disruption. In moments of intensity, it is sometimes easier to become emotionally numb than to sustain the feeling. As much as I can control my away around suffering, I will try.

Yet, Holy Week does not offer an invitation to ease the pain, but to enter it. We are invited to enter the heart of suffering and pray our own agonizing Gethsemane prayers: Where are you, God? And, why God? And, how could this happen? Can’t it be another way? What possible spiritual wisdom could reside in the yearly journey into this uncomfortable place?

We have spent the season of Lent practicing restraint in the desert, stripping ourselves of unnecessary baggage, assessing our idols and illusions. Holy Week is the culminating moment of this wilderness season of the spiritual life. It is the time for whatever is false that remains in us to show its face before what is most true. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor asserts that even pain and suffering can be a spiritual practice because they force us to confront what isn’t real. “Pain strips away all the illusions required to maintain the status quo… Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove.”

We do not seek out suffering, but it happens. There is no neat theological explanation for the Good Friday moments of life that can satisfy my deepest questions. And yet, we can see how it is often through enduring what we would never choose that we find ourselves transformed into who we really are. When asked to draw a map of my spiritual life, the relationship between the lowest points and the most growth becomes abundantly clear. In our aching Gethsemane prayers we dare to utter what is most real in us. There is no time for fancy wording or even right theology. What was once abstract becomes sharp immediacy. And it is here, in this journey to the cross, right in the middle of what we’ve tried to avoid, that we discover the presence of the One who is truly in all things even in the places we’d rather not be.

And it is here, in our dying, that the seed of resurrection breaks open, shedding even its own seed-identity to become fullest life beyond what we can imagine or hope.

This is the threshold we dare to cross.

This is the promise we dare to hold.

 

BREAD OF LIFE

Lenten Practice: Silence
Daily Act: Incorporate times of silence into your daily routine. Before beginning work, eating a meal, or beginning any daily task, observe a minute of silence.
Weekly Prayer Phrase: Repeat this phrase slowly as you breathe deeply. You may choose to memorize this phrase and repeat it throughout your day.

“HOLY MYSTERY, I AM SPEECHLESS IN YOUR PRESENCE.”

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

We began this Lenten journey with this material reminder of our humanness. Smudge of ash marked us with humility. With repentant hearts we started this walk to make up some distance in the great divide between who we are and who we are called, in love, to become.

I don’t think it is an accident that everything we have to teach us about life in God comes from the earth. Earth is our language. We can include the cosmos too- starry nights of wonder and phases of moon. It is what we can see, what we can touch, what we can taste that helps us make just enough sense of the One we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot taste.

Jesus is known for using the physical stuff of earth to help us to see- mud and spit, for example, in the blind man’s eyes.

This night he uses water in basin for washing road-weary feet. So it is in the kingdom of God.

He breaks bread as symbol of broken body. Disciples consume glimpsing what oneness might mean. Texture of bread saturating on tongue- lingering in the mystery of the moment.

Wine, symbol of blood, poured out. Life-giving substance pulsing in the veins of those who received it- of us right now. The bitter sweetness enters their bodies and they can taste what he is saying as he is saying it. A love lesson engrained in their hearts, alive within them.

I don’t know exactly what this means, only that it has meaning. I wonder if this is how the disciples felt too. Sometimes to simply recognize the presence of meaning is reverence enough.

Throughout the years we have interpreted this sacred meal as inclusion, invitation, hospitality. It has meant remembrance and reconciliation and recommitment. We have labored over its truth in theological debate.

In a faith that is so often mystery, the physical elements contain a holy immediacy. I hold it in my hands. I taste. I eat. What I long for is before me, in physical form and it becomes a part of me in some nourishing way. It is a reminder that what I long for is actually more accessible than I ever thought. This earth-cosmos-language is speaking continuously about God. “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)

The table reminds me of the kingdom of God call to add another leaf, set up some more chairs, and invite the whole world to the feast. This is for hungry hearts, yes, but also hungry bodies that Jesus calls us to love and serve. Sometimes the good news is literally bread.

Every table can become the altar for a sacred meal, for reconciliation, for invitation.
This sacred meal is waiting for you in the world. The body of the One you follow- the blood of the One you love. Take. Eat. Live.

“Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body. And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith: This is my Blood.” –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin