Emmaus and the Eucharist

Of all the resurrection stories, perhaps my favorite is the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Two downcast disciples are wandering away from Jerusalem, away from all their hope, when Jesus walks up and joins them. He playfully pretends not to know what is going on. He wants them to acknowledge their loss so that his Holy Spirit can enter their hearts and rekindle their hope. He breaks open the Scriptures for them, helping them to make sense of the Messiah’s story and their own story. Their hearts expand in a yearning to stay connected with him. He breaks bread with them, at which point they recognize his presence. They hasten to Jerusalem and become witnesses of the resurrection.

But there is more. Luke wrote his Gospel for the sake of early Christian communities who were already gathering Sunday after Sunday to listen to the Scriptures and to “do this in memory of me” by celebrating the Eucharist (Luke 22:19). It is not merely a story about a one-time appearance of Jesus to some guy named Cleopas and some other unnamed guy. It is a story about how every Sunday Eucharist is a life-transforming encounter with the risen Jesus. That which happened to those two disciples on a Sunday is intended for each of us.

Our Sunday worship bears a twofold structure: Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist. We listen receptively to the Scriptures and ponder how they connect with our present-day life. We allow our hearts to be set ablaze as we realize how Jesus’ story gives meaning and purpose to our own story. Then we get fed with his very flesh and blood following a ritual reenactment of the once-for-all offering of Jesus. We remember those saving events in a way that allows us to participate in them here and now.

Bishop Robert Barron, in his insightful and inspiring fashion, has drawn many other connections. We begin each Mass by calling on the Lord for mercy: kyrie eleison. Like Cleopas and his friend, we are downcast. Many of the early Church fathers described the fallen human condition as incurvatus. Like the crippled woman in Luke 13, we are bowed down. We are wounded by sin – by the way others’ sins have harmed us and by our own sins. We remain God’s beloved children, inherently good. But we are bent, weighed down, and turned in on ourselves. Without divine mercy, we are like a younger Peter, fluctuating between an “I’ve got this!” grandiosity and an “I’m so horrible!” discouragement.

So, we begin the Mass by acknowledging our sins and inviting the mercy God freely offers us in Christ. We trust that his victory allows us to stand upright – not through our own merits but by his free gift.

Then we listen to the Scriptures and allow them to be broken open for us. In every Sunday Mass, there is a connection between the First Reading and the Gospel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites an adage from the early Church: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (n. 129). There is also a connection between the stories of Scripture and our own personal story – some of which we know with clarity and some of which is a mystery to us. Without the story of Jesus, our own story will remain fragmented and disorienting.

Those of us who are ordained ministers are commissioned by God to proclaim the Gospel with authority. That does not mean that every homily we preach will be brilliant and breathtaking. It does not even mean that we will preach the truth. It does mean that we are called to stand in as Christ, allowing him to speak in and through us. I think every priest or deacon has had the experience of what we thought to be a rather flat performance becoming the divinely chosen moment for one person’s heart to be permanently changed.

The first half of Mass centers around the ambo – the podium at which the Word is proclaimed. We then shift to the altar, which is also a banquet table. All of Scripture and all of the Mass revolve around the paschal mystery of Jesus. “Paschal” is another word for “Passover.” Jesus shows the disciples at Emmaus how the Passover events in Egypt were a prefiguration of his once-for-all Passover offering – which begins at sundown on Holy Thursday. Jesus freely offers himself as the Paschal Lamb – feeding his disciples at table, praying prostrate in the Garden of Gethsemane, suffering and dying on the Cross, proclaiming the Gospel in the realm of the dead, rising in glory, and now robed in human flesh as our great high priest, interceding for us at the right hand of the Father. He is both the priest who offers and the victim who is offered. The Mass participates in that one eternal sacrifice. But why? So that we can all join together with him at the banquet table, celebrating his nuptial union with his bride. Every Mass is a taste and glimpse of the wedding feast of heaven. The Eucharist, Christ’s own risen flesh and blood, is both our food for the journey and our medicine. It nourishes, heals, and strengthens us.

Mass ends by sending us forth. “Mass” comes from missa (“sent”). Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can go forth truly changed – having passed over from old to new, no longer downcast but erect, eager to live as witnesses of Jesus’ story that has given so much meaning to our own story. Renewed and sustained by this steady gift, we now have the capacity to live in a way that attracts others to be curious about Jesus.

Until Jesus comes again, the Eucharist is the beating heart of the Church. We fulfill Jesus’ command to “keep on doing this in memory of me.” We remember where we have come from and where we are going. We become again and gain what we one day will be.

The Tomb as a Womb

It was Easter Sunday: April 12, 2009. I stood in awe at the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. I had spent the entire night there in prayer, and was the very first pilgrim to enter that morning. It was a transformative experience that I will never forget, an experience almost too real to remember.

The church of the Holy Sepulcher houses both the location of Christ’s death on Calvary and his tomb, made forever holy by his resurrection. My friends and I joined in the Catholic liturgy at those sites for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

It was odd to celebrate those ceremonies in the morning. But Jerusalem is an odd place. Because these holy sites are shared with the Orthodox, the Armenians, and the Copts, there is an age-old “Status Quo” agreement that determines who has access when. The Catholic time is 8am, regardless of the occasion.

A few of us returned to the basilica that Holy Saturday night to observe a personal prayer vigil at the Lord’s tomb. I’m ashamed to admit that it is the one and only all-night prayer vigil of my life. For some reason, when it comes to the Lord, that level of sacrifice and generosity is elusive. Too bad, because the Lord is never outdone in generosity!

Knowing that I would be there all night, I was in no rush to “get my prayers done” or to feel like I had to be doing something at any given time. This turned it into a timeless experience. For the first few hours I simply sat back and absorbed the stream of pilgrims that were coming to the church to try to get into the tomb. Occasionally I read some Scripture passages. I began praying for the many people whom I knew needed my prayers. I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of sorrow over so many suffering souls and so many problems in the world – not to mention my own problems.

Then something happened that (for me) only happens about once every 10 years. I began to get the inklings of a poem swelling up within me. For the moment, I put it aside. After all, I thought, I am not a poet! But eventually I opened myself to the movement. The words came rather quickly. It went something like this:

O Tomb of Christ, this Easter Night
I bring to you man’s lonely plight:
toil, trial, sickness, woe,
unceasing wounds left by our foe,
anger, hatred, factions, fights,
fear-filled days and tear-filled nights,
heartache, heartbreak, darkness, death,
and growing pain with every breath –
but hope, hope-filled sadness
to you, the source of gladness.
O tomb that could not hold the Son
Who on this night the victory won,
I bury all my sadness here
and that of those I hold most dear,
that we may rise to second birth
here at the center of the earth.

I was just finishing as the Orthodox began their 2 a.m. Palm Sunday liturgy (their Easter was still a week away). Their somber and sorrowful chanting was beautifully haunting, and resonated with my heart. The time flew by. I began to write on that sheet of paper the names of any and every person I could think of who needed my prayer, as well as my personal intentions. The ink couldn’t run onto the page fast enough. I finished about the time the Orthodox were clearing out.

Ironically, my watch battery had gone dead on Good Friday, so the night was truly timeless. It must have been around 4 a.m. that I attempted to enter the tomb, like Mary Magdalene, “early in the morning, while it was still dark” (John 20:1). An Armenian priest was setting up for their liturgy, and it seemed quite unlikely I would be allowed in. I began to pray the beads of my Rosary, reflecting on the first glorious mystery – the Resurrection of Jesus – and hoping against hope. For some reason a few of the servers were late, and he waved me in.

I approached, finishing the final Hail Marys, and then entered the inner door on my knees. The moment I reached the threshold I broke down and wept as I had not for a very long time. It was such an unburdening and sense of true peace. The best word I can use is GLORY. I experienced the “Glory of the Father” by which “Christ was raised from the dead” (Rom 6:4), and this Glory filled me with Hope. Without eliminating or minimizing my own sadness or the sadness of others, this Hope permeated my soul with a deep confidence summed up in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

I prayed for a few moments before heading back out, not wanting to test the limits of Armenian hospitality. With many tears still in my eyes, I silently thanked the priest for his kindness, and returned to the side of the tomb where I had been praying the past few hours. I wedged that sheet of paper and all those intentions into the side of the tomb and continued to weep and shake for several minutes more. Then I resumed my prayer, turning to Romans 6 and feeling the words come alive in my heart. The resurrection suddenly felt so real!

As the first streaks of dawn were just appearing, I pulled out my Liturgy of the Hours book to pray Morning Prayer. My heart was filled with praise, and so I sang the prayers. How surreal it was to stand at the entrance near the church, chanting the antiphon, “Very early on the morning after the Sabbath, when the sun had just risen, they came to the tomb, Alleluia” – at the very moment that hundreds of pilgrims were streaming in to see the tomb.

I am stunned at what came out of my heart that night. Only during the last six years have I found the courage to plunge deeply into those sad and lonely places of my heart – old places of pain that I didn’t even realize existed. But they were there, and they cried out to the Lord that Easter night in the poem that came out of me. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, and heals the brokenhearted.

The tomb is indeed a womb, giving birth to the newness of the resurrection. That new birth is what my heart longs for – and resists. It seems like it should be easy to welcome the Glory of the resurrection. But the resurrection opens an infinitely vaster horizon of human existence. When a baby passes from the security and comfort of the womb into a vast new world, he needs much nurturing, protection, and guidance to grow into it. So do we. That is why we celebrate the resurrection every single Sunday, and once a year with even greater solemnity. We plunge into death with Christ and rise with him in newness. May you and I joyfully claim even more of that newness this year. A blessed Easter to you all!

Gnosticism Resurrected

It seems like every Easter some journalist takes a swipe at Christianity by stirring up some “new” controversy about Jesus and the Church: Did you know that there are “other” gospels the Church doesn’t want you to know about? Did you know that there were early Christian sects who believed in very different ideas – until they were suppressed by Church authorities?

As French author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr said in 1849, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

As my longtime friends know, if you really want to see me fired up, just start talking about Gnosticism! Maybe it’s because I was ordained a priest on June 28, the feast day of Irenaeus of Lyons. His Against Heresies (written in A.D. 185) offer an in-depth refutation of the Gnostic sects of his day. Maybe it’s because – like Irenaeus – I truly and passionately believe in the dying and rising of Jesus. And I look to that Paschal Mystery for the answers to all our ultimate human questions.

For Gnostics, the answers are found, not in a relationship with Jesus Christ, but in esoteric insight. “Gnostic” comes from gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge.” We find ourselves stuck in this corrupted cosmos, unable to escape. Jesus is the logos – “the Word” – but in a different sense. He comes from heavenly realms to bring secret passwords, with which we can escape this dimension and enter the pleroma – the spiritual fullness from which we are cut off.

For the Gnostics, Jesus was a spiritual being who only pretended to be human. He didn’t really take on human flesh; he didn’t really die; and he didn’t really rise. So much for Christmas and Easter! There is a reason why the early Church rejected Gnosticism so strongly, and rejected Gnostic gospels as not of God. Gnostic beliefs strike at the very heart of Christian faith: the dying and rising of Jesus as a real historical event that really transforms and restores us.

Gnosticism also distorts the original goodness of God’s creation, including our human bodies. For Gnostics, fleshly existence is a burden, a prison, or an illusion to be escaped. Such views were common in some of the other philosophies or religions of the ancient world. They are common today. Most people I know look on their own bodies with some level of shame and contempt.

By contrast, in the Book of Genesis, Jews and Christians believe that God created us humans as bodily beings, male and female in his own image. He looks with delight upon what he has created and declares our bodies to be “very good.”

We are spiritual bodies (or embodied spirits – take your pick). To be non-bodily is to be less than human. God’s plan is to divinize our bodies – not just to cancel our sins, but to cause us to share in his eternal glory, in our very flesh.

For early Gnostics, one way or another, human flesh was “less than” or corrupt. They could take that one of two ways. Some sects pursued extreme asceticism, shunning all fleshly pleasures (including sexuality and procreation) as a trap. Others were highly permissive of hedonistic indulgence because – after all – what you do with your body doesn’t matter; you are a spiritual being at your core and will one day be rid of your body.

Can you see how these early heresies are finding new life today?

Then and now there is a tendency to look upon our bodies and our sexuality with shame and contempt. Then and now there is a tendency to avoid accountability about what we do with our bodies. Genuine accountability is radically different from shaming (which plenty of Christian families and churches are good at!). Accountability means I am willing to look honestly and truthfully about how kind my choices are toward myself and others. It means I care about my relationships and am willing to repent and repair if I see that I have caused harm. It means claiming the inherent goodness of my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. It means (like Romans 7 and 8 describe) hoping for redemption and resurrection even when bodily existence in this fallen world feels futile.

Gnosticism shows up at funerals: in the obituaries, in the eulogies, in the burial practices, and on the tombstones. A walk through a cemetery can be quite telling. Where once you found crosses and Scriptures reminding you of God’s promise of resurrection, you now find fishing poles and Green Bay Packers Helmets. Where once Christian prayer ritually remembered the story of the dying and rising of Jesus (and connected it to the baptismal faith of the deceased), there is now only a backward looking celebration of life.

Mind you, it is a blessing to celebrate with gratitude the earthly life of our loved ones. AND we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Or we used to. I find that few people actually, truly believe those two truths anymore.

The resurrected body of Jesus was the same body, yet new and different. So will it be with us. This very body – or what is left of it – will be raised from the grave (John 5:29). We will see God as he is and become like Jesus – he who is ascended and glorified in human flesh.

Gnosticism is so tempting because it avoids the pain of Hope. It is easier, in the end, to find a solution that gives up on the redemption of our bodies, and gives up on truly being transformed to be all-holy in Christ. It is easier to answer our deepest religious questions in a way that doesn’t have to enter into a relationship with the living God – and therefore doesn’t risk him disappointing us. It is easier to condemn our bodies in shame.

Disciples like Paul refuse to bypass Hope. If you read Romans 7, you see that he is a sinner like you and me – the good that he desires he doesn’t do; instead he does the evil that he hates. Then in Romans 8, Paul expresses the agony of Hope, using words like futility, labor pains, and groaning. Living a bodily existence this side of paradise often feels that way! But Paul refuses to give up on seeking his answers in the promises of Jesus Christ. Jesus will resurrect this lowly body of ours; he will redeem and restore us, causing us to be fully at peace in his Father’s presence. Where he has gone, we surely will follow – if we dare to Hope.

Paschal Triduum

We will soon celebrate the Paschal Triduum. We will enter the holiest three days of the year. We will remember the dramatic story in which Jesus redeemed and renewed us.

“Paschal” is another word for Passover. That connection is lost when we use the common English word “Easter.” On Resurrection Sunday, my Spanish-speaking parishioners will say to me, “¡Feliz Pascua!” which literally means “Happy Passover!”

For us Christians, the Passover observance has been forever changed by Jesus. No longer do we spread the blood of a slaughtered lamb on the doorposts and lintels of our homes. Jesus offers himself as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He willingly becomes the lamb, once slain, who now lives, never to die again. His dying and rising are one single offering to the Father. They are now, for us, one single celebration.

In terms of calendar time, the Triduum spans three days, beginning the evening of Holy Thursday and concluding the evening of Resurrection Sunday. However, it remains one single event, a seamless moment in time.

Scripture scholars distinguish chronos and kairos, two Greek words for “time.” Chronological time marches along with steady precision, and with utter disregard for our lived human experience. Sometimes time can’t move quickly enough, as on a Friday afternoon when students and employees stare at the sluggish clock. At other times the hours, weeks, or even years seem to be racing past us. By contrast, there are kairos moments within the passage of time. Whether such a moment lasts a few hours or a few months, we remember it as one significant event or era. The Sacred Triduum is THE kairos event of human history.

For many of the disciples, it was largely a trauma event. They abruptly lost their Lord, and found themselves falling away from him. Within moments, they experienced dread, doubt, confusion, betrayal, loss, guilt, and shame. Trauma has its own sense of timelessness. When we feel powerless, it seems like the anguish will never end.

Jesus transforms our human experience. He willingly enters the depths of human drama and human trauma, conquering every single moment with perfect love.

For some of you, “Triduum” is a new word and a new concept. Others among you have been observing it liturgically for decades. Either way, I invite you to gaze and ponder afresh what transpired during those three days. This three-day event is willed by God to become the very heart of every human story.


Remember that in Jewish tradition, the new day begins at sunset. Therefore, Day One of the Triduum includes Jesus’ suffering, dying and burial. He initiates this new Passover event by sharing a meal with his disciples. They spend much of the meal debating who among them is the greatest. He declares the bread and wine to be his own flesh and blood and commands them to commemorate this offering. He prays to his Father in the garden. He watches his friends abandon him as he faces arrest, trial, torture, mocking, and crucifixion. His physical torment alone is enough to move human hearts to repentance. But his emotional and spiritual suffering were so much more intense. He willingly takes on our own infirmities, freely entering every traumatizing human experience: abandonment, rejection, the violation of his body, shaming comments, and a felt powerlessness. His cry to his Father gives voice to every human heart that ever has or ever will endure such experiences: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But unlike each of us, Jesus remains faithful and true. He surrenders in trust; he holds out hope; he loves to the end. Day One concludes with his burial and the sealing of the tomb, just in time for the Sabbath.


Day Two is so easily forgotten by Christians. Jesus’ body remains in the tomb on a Sabbath Day like no other.

Imagine what Holy Saturday was like for the various followers of Jesus. Many had abandoned him or denied him. Imagine the shame they felt! The gospels don’t specify what Peter and the others were up to on this day, but we know that by Sunday most of them were on voluntary lockdown, cowering in the cenacle.

Most of them had their messianic hopes crushed. Despite Jesus’ miracles, parables, and constant proclamation of the Kingdom of God, each follower continued to clutch a more tangible kind of salvation – deliverance from the Romans or restoring the Kingdom of Israel.

Others, like Mary Magdalene, were actively seeking him, like the beloved in the Song of Songs, going out into the night and earnestly searching after the one her heart loves. Desiring and not possessing is an agony like no other – the agony of Hope.

There is also the Hope of Mary, Jesus’ own mother, who had spent thirty years with him, had stood with him at the foot of the Cross, and had always pondered his words and events in her heart. She knew his promises better than anyone.  As at the Annunciation, as at Bethlehem, as during the flight into Egypt, as when seeking and finding Jesus in the Temple, Mary believed that God was ushering in a new and greater human experience. But she couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like. She persevered in Hope. Scripture doesn’t tell us about what it was like when Mary encountered the Risen Jesus, following the agonizing Hope of Day Two. But we can imagine the surprise and the joy.

In Catholic life, each Saturday is a day of devotional remembrance of Mary. We forget that it is her day because Holy Saturday is the day on which she persevered in Hope.


Jesus rises on the Third Day, during the night preceding the dawn of Resurrection Sunday. No other human being directly witnesses his Resurrection, but the encounters explode, like kernels of corn beginning to pop – at first one by one, and then rapid fire. In every encounter, the Risen Jesus catches them by surprise, and fills their hearts with unimaginable joy. Their narrow and preconceived ideas about the messiah are shattered against the event of his dying and rising. He helps them to understand how everything in the Law and Prophets – indeed everything about our human story – points to this new Passover. This event of his dying and rising (and the agonizing wait in between) is what gives meaning and purpose to your story and mine.

Even still, you and I have a tendency to bypass the Paschal Mystery. Resurrection sounds nice, but what about fully entering with Jesus into suffering, dying, and an agonizing wait at the tomb? Like the characters in the Bible, we prefer perfectionistic rule-following, secular political solutions, or to the old standbys of pleasure, prestige, and power.

This Holy Week, may we allow our minds and hearts to be reawakened to the Faith, Hope, and Love that the Sacred Triduum offers us.

Singing a New Song

Sing a new song to the Lord!

Many of us have been praising God with these words of Psalm 149 every single morning this past Easter week in the Liturgy of the Hours.

But what does it mean to “sing a new song” to the Lord?

Often, it means that we need to move on from our “old songs” – or to allow Jesus to transform them radically with the newness that he brings in his Passover victory. Our old songs, if played out to their completion, only bring slavery and misery. Jesus desires to teach us a new song in the new and eternal covenant, sealed with his blood in his Passover victory.

As in the original Passover, singing a new song means leaving Egypt and the ways of Egypt behind as we pursue God’s promises with fellowship, praise, and a deep desire to enter into the Lord’s rest.

Most of us know how well that worked out for most of the Israelites. It didn’t take them long in the desert to start pining for the fleshpots of Egypt, wishing they were back among familiar places and faces, forgetting in their fantasizing just how awful it had been to be enslaved. They reached an ultimate low point at the very moment when God was ready to form a special covenant with them on Mount Sinai. Moses comes down from his forty-day fast, bearing tablets inscribed by the very finger of God, only to find the Israelites carousing and revling around the golden calf they have fashioned for themselves.

Such sins do not come out of nowhere. They are the culmination of singing “old songs,” the melodies of which sweep us along toward old solutions to old problems. Once we get started with a catchy song, we feel the urge to finish it. Fans of The Office may remember the hilarious elevator scene in which Andy and Pam are trying to make a cold call to a potential client. Andy annoyingly sings the names and suite numbers of all the businesses he sees listed. Pam interrupts him with the right answer and urges him to stop singing. Andy complains, “Except it was going to resolve the melody, so now my head hurts. Feels like I held in a sneeze. Mmm! I hate this feeling!” Truthfully, we all do. The farther along we are in our old song, the harder it is to stop.

It is so helpful to reflect upon our experiences – including our darkest moments of sin – with kindness and curiosity. In our shame, we tend to avoid telling the full truth of our behaviors. Sadly, in that hiding and avoidance, we also miss out on the chance to learn valuable lessons and grow.

The truth is that our unholy moments of acting out are almost always preceded by unholy rituals that function much like the melodies of an old song – often a song that we learned decades ago. If we are paying attention in those moments, we will notice that we feel a certain way; that we have certain images running through our head; and that our bodies experience certain sensations. Typically, some level of fantasizing is involved. Our deep desires get hijacked by the fantasy, and some promised pleasure begins arousing us. There is sexual arousal for some, but the arousal can be ordered towards any number of fantasies: food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, envy, achivement, anger, rage, or revenge. In each case, as the anticipatory arousal grows, so does our urge to finish the song.

As a classic example, consider the devout dating couple who keep telling themselves they don’t want to get physical with each other when they hang out – but somehow always do, only to feel ashamed. They don’t always recognize early enough that they are entering into a ritual with each other – surrounding themselves with the same environment, the same sensations, and the same behaviors. They tell themselves that the outcome will be different this time, but of course it’s only natural that they begin feeling a heightened sense of anticipation for the completion of the ritual. Even if their minds are oblivious, their bodies and emotions and imagination understand what is happening. The more measures of the song that are sung, the harder it is to decide to stop. Again, this is true of sexual arousal but also of any number of other fantasies.

For some fantasies, the ritual song and dance may take days to play itself out to its finish; for others (e.g., an outburst of anger) the whole song can play itself out within milliseconds. Even then, as Victor Frankl once said, between stimulus and response there is always a space. In that space there can be power to choose, to be free, and to grow. In other words, there is the opportunity to learn a new song.

Singing a new song means calling on the newness of Jesus as we reclaim the things the Lord has made: desire, arousal, connection, intimacy, union, and joy. Every one of us is created by God to have these experiences – yes, even those of us who have freely renounced marriage and sexuality for the sake of the Kingdom. One need only see a smattering of celibate Saints to get a glimpse at the intensity of their desire, their longing, their anticipation, their delight, or their joy.  Consider Francis of Assisi, a man known for his poverty and chastity, and how intensely he enjoyed in the beauty of God’s creation. Pseudo-desires like lust and greed actually undermine authentic desire, intimacy, union, joy, and delight. It was precisely Francis’ open hands and open heart, his renunciation of lust and greed, that opened his heart up to the deep joy and peace that come as the fruit of praising of the God who delights in giving good gifts to his beloved children.

Psalm 149 speaks to all of these experiences. Singing a new song means joining in communion with the rest of God’s assembly – no longer isolating or hiding, no longer secretly stealing pleasures when we think no one is looking. It means rejoicing in God as our King and allowing ourselves to feel deeply the delight he takes in us. It means true rest with the Lord, learning just to be, basking in his loving gaze, and praising him amidst the delight we experience his presence.

It also means binding up God’s enemies in chains and fetters of iron (Psalm 149:8). Many of us have been bound up by chains for much of our lives. The evil one attacks early and often, seducing us into unholy agreements, enticing us to believe lies about ourselves or about God. These lies become cords that bind us, not to mention “chords” that keep us trapped in the same miserable old song that brings the same miserable old outcome. I know some of my own “chords” in that regard: I must hide my true self. I must not be weak or fail. I must never ask for help. I must never depend on others. If I keep playing these chords, the song won’t end well. I need Jesus to enter in with his newness and transform the song.

Some of our chords need to be eliminated from the song entirely. If we play them, they will only lead us to an evil end. Think of the alcoholic who needs to give up going to bars and part ways with some of his buddies.

Perhaps some of the old chords served us well for a time, but the song needs a change of key. Each of us have our own self-created solutions in our attempt try to make our pain go away, or try to fill the empty places of our heart, or attempt to resolve our inner conflict. Unaided and unprotected by others, sometimes it was the only viable way to survive. Indeed, some of us have survived truly hellish situations, and the measures people resort to in survival don’t always make for glamorous stories. The saddest part about survival stories is often after the rescue comes. One of the hardest thing for survivors to do is to internalize the truth that they are now free to live a full life – they don’t have to live in their joyless survival methods anymore.

If we find ourselves clinging to old ways of surviving (even when they have long outworn their purpose), we can allow Jesus to teach us new chords in a new song – even though we may, at first, find this learning process to be unfamiliar, frustrating, overwhelming, or intimidating.

Again, Psalm 149 offers the basics of the new chords needed: Connect with others in God’s assembly in joyful communion. Receive and give love together with them as we open our hearts in praise of the living God. Receive joyfully the truth that he delights in us (no matter what we have done), he rescues us, and he desires us to rest in him and delight in him. Bind up any and all evil spirits who would dare attempt to interrupt this amazing new song that Jesus brings.

God has ordained it so. This honor is for all his faithful.

When Hope Hurts

As followers of Jesus, we are people of Hope – especially during Holy Week and Easter.

This year we will experience a Holy Week like no other – gathering the family around our tablets and TVs to view the live stream of the holiest liturgies of the year.

I think back to the middle of March – which now feels like ancient history – and remember how I wept and sobbed over the cancellation of public Masses. The part that was the most painful for me was when it fully dawned on me that our faith communities would not be gathering together for Holy Week and Easter. Having had time to process my grief, I am now grateful that we’re doing our moral duty and serving the common good by joining in the shared effort of social distancing. I’m grateful for all the creativity and innovation that has opened up new opportunities. I’m getting accustomed to Mass on facebook live and Zoom meetings. But let’s face the facts: it’s still hard.

Since the middle of March, there have been far greater hardships for many than the temporary disruption of prayer gatherings and public Masses. Some find their entire livelihood in grave peril; others are under enormous daily stress; many others have died of COVID-19 or lost a loved one.

All of us have felt our daily lives turned upside down. Almost everyone I know seems to be experiencing a significant spike in anxiety or a resurgence of unwanted behaviors. So much is uncertain and unknown; so much can change so quickly. We trust God, but it’s incredibly hard at times to keep believing that it’s somehow all going to be blessed by God as part of his greater plan.

Hope is hard. The Christian virtue of Hope is not rosy optimism; it’s not a feel-good pretending like everything is just swell. Hope involves longing and desiring, watching and waiting. Hope stretches our human hearts far beyond what feels easy or comfortable. Indeed, keeping Hope alive in our heart can be painful. It’s so much easier to try to avoid, it, numb it, or even kill it – choosing instead a path of self-soothing or self-reliance. But we cannot save ourselves.

Holy Week is a time of Hope. The death and resurrection of Jesus, his Paschal Mystery, constitutes THE human story. Without Jesus dying and rising, our human existence becomes empty, fruitless, and meaningless. On the contrary, as we allow ourselves to be plunged into those saving events, we are brought to new and more abundant life.

In the “in between” of that transformation stands the virtue of Hope, like a brave soldier standing in the breach. It can be far more agonizing than we may realize. It’s quite possible that only a few Christians these days are truly steeped in Hope.

Hope is the virtue of Holy Saturday – a day that is easily overlooked. Many are bustling about preparing for Easter; others are pre-binging on food or Netflix or some other pleasure. The invitation of Holy Mother Church – rarely accepted – is to engage in fasting and silence and prayer as best we can, to continue keeping our vigil at the Tomb of Christ, watching and waiting in Hope.

Think of the various characters in the Gospels and imagine what their experience of Holy Saturday was like. Think of Peter and the other apostles, having suddenly lost their Lord and their friend Jesus – and under the shameful circumstances of having abandoned him or denied him. Jesus had recently given a glimpse of glory to Peter atop Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration. Maybe that remembered experience emitted some faint glimmer of Hope amidst his overwhelming feelings of grief and disillusionment, fear and doubt, guilt and shame.

Think of Mary Magdalene and the other faithful women, holding Jesus in their hearts, continuing to love him even when it hurt so much. Their instinctive and intuitive Hope drew them to the tomb on Easter morning, even if they didn’t understand what was happening in their hearts.

Think of Jesus’ own mother Mary, who had borne him in her womb, nursed him, taught him to walk, taught him to read the Scriptures, taught him to pray, and so much more. Over the course of 33 years, she was more intimately close to him and held more conversations with Him than any other human being. Scripture does not record these, but Luke does tell us more than once that Mary kept pondering these mysteries in her heart. She is perhaps the one person who was not entirely surprised at his Resurrection.

But even for Mary – nay, especially for Mary – there was that agonizing in-between moment of Hope between the first day of Good Friday and the third day of Resurrection. If the experience was anything like the previous patterns (the birth of Jesus, the Flight into Egypt, the Presentation in the Temple), she knew and believed God’s promises, but did not know how those promises would be fulfilled.

That is what is so hard about Hope. It is an invitation to plunge into the depths of Jesus’ suffering – which involved far more than physical torments. He freely chose to dive into the depths of our fallen human experience – including the isolation, the loneliness, the fear, the shame, the rejection, and the abandonment that so many of us experience. When he cries out “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” He is crying out with and for each of us from the depths of our hearts – places we are often not willing to go ourselves, because they hurt so much. Jesus allows himself to feel the pain of rupture from God and rupture from neighbor that is part of the story for each of us who are fallen.

Then it’s our turn. Like the Virgin Mary, like Mary Magdelene, like so many of the other disciples, we are invited to keep vigil at his Tomb. We are invited to keep believing his promises – even when it seems impossible anything will ever change. For each of those followers, Easter morning was a wonderful surprise. The risen Jesus brought them joy in a way they had never imagined possible.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, Catholics show up in large numbers for Good Friday, and are often moved to tears at the torments Jesus endured on the Cross. This year, only the priest celebrant will get to kiss the Cross.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, most Catholics give little thought to the experience of Holy Saturday. This year, we all have an extended Holy Saturday opportunity. We have been given a share in Jesus’ suffering and death. In the form of all this unrest and all these unknowns, we have an opportunity to share in the same disorienting and agonizing experience of those early disciples on that first Holy Saturday. Like most of them, we do not know how long it will last, whether it will get better, or how it will get better. We surrender in Hope; we wait in Hope, even when it hurts.

We are free to choose. We can plunge fully into the deep waters of Hope. Or we can keep popping up for air. There are any number of ways we can do that. Some turn to the false soothing of food or alcohol or pornography. Others minimize or deny, pretending like it’s not really that hard (thus distancing themselves from genuine Hope). Still others crack a joke or enter into fault-finding and peevishness – anything that will distract us from the present agony of abiding at the Tomb in Hope.

These are normal ways of avoiding – and they make sense. We all do at least some of them. The truth is that tt is terrifying to be under water for a long period of time! For many of us, it feels like it will be too much or too long. Indeed, that is the whole point of being plunged into the waters of Baptism – we actually die with Christ!

We Catholics think often of Good Friday and of suffering with Jesus. This year, I invite each of us to think especially of Holy Saturday, and give ourselves permission to experience the full depth and breadth and length of Christian Hope. It is not for the faint of heart! If we allow it, it will grow and crescendo into an earthquake that will finally break open the cave of our heart; it will roll away the stone so that we, too, can be surprised by the joy of the Risen Jesus.