I told you in the introduction to this retreat yesterday that the purpose of our reflections this week is to reflect on each day of Holy Week, to turn our minds and hearts to that first Holy Week in order to more fully understand and enter into our celebration of Holy Week 2000 some years later.
On the Sunday before his death, on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus began his trip to Jerusalem, knowing that soon he would lay down his life for us. As he approached the village of Bethphage (Beth-fa-gee), he sent two of his disciples ahead, telling them to look for a donkey. Deacon Tom beautifully reflected on that yesterday. The disciples were instructed to untie the donkey and bring it to Jesus. If anyone asked what they were doing, they were to say, “The Lord has need of it.”
The disciples did as they were instructed. Then Jesus sat on the young donkey and slowly, humbly, made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
The crowds welcomed him by waving palm branches in the air and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Down through the years, we continue to echo the words of those crowds at our Holy Mass on Palm Sunday.
After Palm Sunday, Jesus and his disciples spent the night in Bethany, a town in the eastern suburbs of Jerusalem. This is where Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, lived. They were close friends of Jesus.
Our Gospel passage today recounts for us how Jesus allowed himself to be served by Mary. Jesus must have been so tired after his long journey, after dealing all day with his bickering and betraying disciples and the fickle crowds. Mary knew exactly what to do – she went down to the storeroom of the house and found some oil leftover from her brother Lazarus’s burial.
Jesus sat there. Mary went up and stooped down. She could not bear to look at his cracked, dry feet. She got on her knees and threw the ointment on his feet and dried them with her hair. She was crying. The fragrance of that ointment filled her heart with memories – memories of her brother Lazarus and how Jesus had raised him, memories of her time sitting with Jesus some months ago, listening to him, having chosen the “better part” while Martha was busy serving, memories of meals shared and conversations had.
Mary knew on that first Holy Monday, as she poured out that costly perfumed oil and dried Jesus’ feet with her hair – she knew who Jesus was. Mary knew that before her was the king of kings, the Lord lords, and because of that she wanted to give him everything – and she did.
When Judas objects, claiming to have concern for the poor but actually only caring for himself, Jesus says these words: “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
What are we to make of these words in light of our present COVID-19 situation? “You will not always have me.”
For us Catholics, we are, for the most part, rather accustomed to “always having Jesus.” That it to say, we are used to having the luxury of at least being able to decide to “have Jesus,” to “take him” or “leave him.” We have known that he is always in our adoration chapel, if only we find the time. We knew that he was the tabernacles of our unlocked churches, he was at daily Mass, he was in our prayer groups, he was in our bible studies. He was in the confessional. He has always been, in our experience, sitting there waiting for us to find the time for him and to approach him as Mary did.
Except, now, thanks to COVID-19, he is not there anymore. Churches in most of the world are closed. We priests have been directed not to hear confessions unless a person is on his deathbed. We have been told not to sit in our confessionals and to close our church and chapel doors. For all intents and purposes, it seems like now, Jesus’ words “you will not always have me” have come true, for we do not have him with us in the ways that we are used to.
We are left to look for Jesus in other places for the time being. Are we up to the challenge? Many of us have turned to live streamed Masses, to Catholic radio programs and spiritual readings, to Catholic movies and documentaries. We have become quite resourceful in making our homes into the domestic churches that they should always be. That is all well and good.
But – I want us to be careful not to fill every moment of every day with noise, even good noise. In our first reading at Mass today, God tells us through the Prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, Upon whom I have put my Spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, Not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.”
Perhaps this Holy Week, Jesus wants to come to us in the silence. He wants to come not in some earthquake or fire, not even in the sacramental ways we rightly love and cherish so deeply. But in the silence. This is why I suggested in my homilies last weekend that we all take a quiet walk with Jesus this week. NOT a quiet walk with our ear buds or even our own busy worried thoughts. But a quiet walk each day with Jesus.
Mother Teresa once observed that many great things happen in silence. The stars, the moon, the orbits – all that happens in silence. Our first reading and psalm at Mass today talk about light – and surely we notice that the sun rises and sets in still, sacred silence. Trees and flowers, all life grows in silence. This led Mother Teresa to conclude: “The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.”
Mary in our Gospel today was a friend of silence. While Martha was famously the busybody with her pots and pans and long to-do lists, Mary sat silently with Our Blessed Lord. While Judas frantically plotted and schemed, Mary knelt silently at the feet of the Master. One of the holiest priests I know who does more in one day that most priests do in a week – he sits in silence for two hours a day.
Friends, this time of COVID-19 – God is redeeming it. Many of us have more silence than before. Let us take advantage of it, let our souls profit by it. The more silent we are, the more observant we are, and the more attentive we are, the less we are focused on all our “doings” – and the more we will come to find that we are never alone. We will discover that the presence of God surrounds us – and more, that GOD IS PRESENCE.
Recently I was watching an episode of BULL. There was a holy priest who is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. So holy was this priest that he was willing to go to jail for the rest of his life for a crime committed by someone who had confessed to him. He knew he couldn’t break the seal of confession, you see. At the end of the episode, the true perpetrator comes forward and the priest is acquitted. The lawyer asks the priest, “I just don’t understand how you were willing to go to jail alone and spend the rest of your life there.” The priest replied, “I wouldn’t have been alone.”
Surely Mary in our Gospel today came to realize the same thing. Mary’s sacrifice, her service was proof of her love. As Mary silently knelt with Jesus and quietly anointed his broken, tired feet, her selfless sacrifice gave her joy—even as she wept at the prospect of his upcoming absence.
But here’s the thing – Jesus’ upcoming absence did come – but then he returned and sent his spirit upon us! The universe is charged with that spirit. This week, in our silence, let us look for all the ways he is present. Let us recognize him in those places, let us serve him there, let us love him there.
One day, COVID-19 will be over. Our holy hours will be ten times stronger, our Masses will be more vibrant, our love for the sacraments and experience of the resurrection all the more palpable. But none of that will happen unless we enter into the silence.