Palm Sunday During A Pandemic

April 5, 2020

Dear Friends, may the Lord give us peace.  We are gathered apart this day to begin probably one of the most surreal Holy Weeks we have ever experienced.  The constant directives, “shelter in place,” “practice social distancing,” “wear a mask to protect others, not yourself,” capture a reality of separation that we do not seek.  Some of us live alone, others with family or friends, one day leads to another in a routine of distancing, bridged only by an occasional walk, a phone call, if we are blessed a zoom happy hour with those we love.  We are acutely aware as never before that our would, now networked through images both of frightened care-givers and dying loved ones who receive no-touch—gathering statistics of unemployment and anguish for the future– and also beautiful displays of courageous self-giving—this world where beauty, fragility, loneliness, and death collide on a daily basis, has entered the space of our little house churches.  Perhaps this Holy Week of our Lord’s passionate love for us comes not as a side bar on our computer screens, or a virtual reality we simply tune into, but as a living memory, front and center, that enters our hearts and there brings a blessing we had not quite known before.

Years ago I was visiting a hospital to see a few patients.  As I got into the elevator, a woman with a cane entered with me.  I remember her green dress, white blouse, a lapeled green jacket.  She was short and stocky with greying hair. And she maneuvered with a very strong cane, leaning on the wall to support herself.  What was unusual about her was her cane:  she had decorated it with a bright red rose.  What’s with the cane and the rose, I asked, and as we left the elevator she told me her story. An accomplished business woman, she had been in a severe accident that forced her to quit her job and remain in her own home alone for six months.  Worst of all, she could hardly walk without help—and the anger and frustration inside her ate at her bitter soul. Why had this happened to her?  Then one day, in her little house church, she looked up at the small art piece on the mantle above her fireplace.  She kept it because it had been a gift from her mother.  It was a statue of Mary holding Jesus in her lap.  And she told me, “at that moment something happened. I put a rose on my cane, and decided to visit people in the hospital.”  She had begun to realize the true meaning of the passion of the Lord.

In our Franciscan vision,   it is not that we must always come to the Lord, travel from our homes to arrive at a gathered assembly where we pray together, sing together, receive bodily the bread of life and the chalice of salvation.  In our Franciscan world, especially in times of felt absence, Jesus, who received his fragile flesh from his mother and knows what it is to be isolated from his family and friends, seemingly powerless before a virus of destructive forces, loves to enter the homes of people who are scattered.   Have we ever noticed that  our Good News  today begins not with Judas’ betrayal, background noise really to move God’s plot along,  but with Jesus sending his disciples  into someone else’s house to announce:  “The Teacher wants to celebrate Passover with you.” Sheltered in place,  whoever is inside opens the door and sets a table in the sanctuary of their heart.  He comes to us wherever we are, not we to him.  Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is constantly entering houses and turning them into churches where God’s human touch dwells.  He enters the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, ill with a fever, surrounded by her worried daughter and her husband, and touches her (Mt. 8.14-15).  Without being asked,  in his mercy he invites himself into the house of Zacchaeus:  “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Lk.19.1-10). Matthew, invited to follow Jesus, does just that, only to find himself with Jesus circling back into Matthew’s own house (Mt. 9.9-13).  Before entering Jerusalem, Jesus stops at Bethany and invites himself into two homes: the home of Simon the leper, where he accepts the touch of a woman full of faith anointing him for death (Mt. 26.6-12);  the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus,  who banquet in gratitude because the has planted in their house a living witness to the power of God to raise the dead to life (Jn. 12.2). When the disciples, having seen the horror around them,  are sequestered out of fear, he enters a locked house, shows them the wounds from his own journey, and addresses them:  “Peace be with you.”  (Mt. 26.1-7)   When the two disciples are confused about all this suffering in the world, and plead with him:  “Stay with us, it is nearly evening,”  he stays with them in their house, says a prayer of thanksgiving,  and reveals his presence as he breaks the food of his life with them  (Lk. 24.29-30)   In Jesus, God enters homes of innumerable people surrounded by death and sheltering in place, only so that they can have life  (Jn. 3.16).  Into their weakness, Jesus brings God’s power; into their isolation comes God’s touch; into the overwhelming silence of their suffering he brings the voice of the Word speaking to the Father; into their feelings of absence, presence arrives; into the experience of the world’s indifference, the Son of Man brings the gaze of love.   He assumes their afflictions and takes their life into his own person, becoming poor so that they may become rich. (Ii Cor. 8.9)

It is true. Today, only a few of us will physically receive the bread of life and the chalice of salvation.  But the Lord’s presence cannot be confined simply to the bread we eat and the wine we drink. This is the blessing we receive this year of plague:   He comes to each of us in another way—through his Word, his power, his victory over death, his unfailing desire to break up social distancing and,  unmasked,  shelter with us,  face to face.  Today, the Teacher says, “I am to celebrate the Passover with you.”  He enters each of our homes and turns them into churches; and, even more, present in each place, lifted up on the cross of his own human life [“and I, if I be lifted up, will draw all things to myself”. Jn. 12.32, cf. 3.14, 5.21],  he unites us all together into one Body.   It is this Body of Christ, each other and the world, that we receive today—this is our global eucharist:   bearing each others burdens, aware of the world’s suffering, and through our faith, our prayers, our actions for others, visiting the hospital of the world, making of a multitude of canes,  trees of life blossoming in some measure with the beauty of God’s love.  May the Lord give us peace and send us on our mission.

Joseph P. Chinnici, O.F.M.

Franciscan School of Theology

San Diego, California

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