The Burden and Gift of Distance – Pastor’s Reflection
I write you this letter on March 27. Several days before this the palms arrived. Usually their appearance counts as a logistical relief. We store them in a cool place and congratulate ourselves on due diligence in Holy Week
preparation. But this year the palms arrived as shipment from another world. After so many years even the color and shape of their box has become familiar to me, and so they stood as a visible and visceral reminder of another rhythm of life, in which Palm Sunday ushered in a familiar procession of days; the Triduum, Easter, Mercy Sunday, St. Catherine, St. Vincent, Mothers’ Day, Ascension, Pentecost, Memorial Day, and Graduation. Summer relief came at the end of this happy routine of work. Now relief would come if just one of those days could be celebrated in any form whatsoever.
This year, amid the grimness of a pandemic, the green palms offer a slender, vibrant connection has lost normalcy and they do a whole lot of other work besides.
Most years I look at palms as openers to deeper mysteries. The Gospel and procession with palms always move me, toward the Triduum and all of its touchables: Eucharist to adore, Cross to venerate, Paschal Candle to lift high. But this year they are the only things I do not have to practice liturgical distance from. So they do double or triple duty reaching across all kinds of distance.
Firstly, they bridge the gap between us. We may not touch each other, but we may take from the same pile of palms and share something physical with those we love. We may not enter each other’s homes, but the palm will enter all of our homes and remind us of the singular togetherness of walking through our neighborhood in witness to Christ, the communion he created among us on parade for all to see.
But this little palm will also have to connect us physically to all of Holy Week by reminding us tangibly of the upcoming days that we must draw on our own resources to keep awareness and reverence. All of a sudden we have a task in common with Christians in battle, or in prison, who must face Holy Week without all the familiar supports. Here comes an absence we would never choose, but also an opportunity to rediscover the Crucified and Risen One who sustains his followers through their loneliness and fear toward a promise of unhindered, unqualified life. In this promise of present support and future welcome, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday come together in a single mystery of healing and transformation.
Think too of the special obligation laid upon this Holy Week. The crowds cheering Jesus did not know of the connection he sought to create with them and among them. In this we are like the crowds of Pentecost for whom this part of the paschal gift at last became clear. In the power of everything Jesus accomplished we walk this solitary Holy Week in solidarity with, and on behalf of, all who are sick with Covid – 19, and all who are giving them care so heroically. One cannot imagine how real the mysteries of Holy Week have become to them. It will be for us to struggle with the solitude of these sacred days, but to wrestle equally with their global connectedness.
Finally, the palm frond in my hand connects me to myself. Every year on Palm Sunday I have the insight that I am just like those people waving a branch at Jesus as he rides by. I recognize him but do not understand him. I embrace his teachings but have yet to really mine their potential in my life, I have read his Gospel but I do not live up to it. I have been a Christian for almost 58 years and I have not begun to be so.
This is why I need Holy Week this year more than ever, and even in private it has the power to reveal and heal my Christianity. Perhaps without planning liturgies and organizing people, I will have the distance to perceive Christ’s work in me with unique clarity.
In recent weeks we have learned a great deal about distance. What we looked at as a barrier to be crossed we now see as a boundary of health and well-being. We perceive distance properly as an impediment to gatherings which are essential to our faith. But perhaps this year we are being given a singular vantage point on perennial elements in our life with God: suffering, sacrament, and promise each take on deeper meaning when seen from a contemplative distance.
It seems to me that this year you and I have the assignment standing back to take in the panorama of the world’s suffering and also the amazing vista of God’s love. Uniting the two stands the Cross, where the suffering of human innocence encounters the liberating power of God’s love. I believe that if we take the time to behold this we will emerge from this crisis with a Christianity both more confident and more humble, as vibrant and unaffected as a palm frond.
Holy Week Peace!
Published in our bulletin April 5, 2020