Easter week has gone from beautifully sunny and warm to chilly, windy and wet. The snow peas I planted on Holy Saturday are probably enjoying the moisture, swelling up and getting ready to sprout. Our annual coating of yellow pollen is beginning, and some blooms are nearly finished – iris at the church around the corner, various blossoming trees. Lent is over. Spring has arrived along with Easter.
Lent is always poignant at our parish because we are in the midst of human suffering and struggle here in Ensley. There are two schools attached to Holy Family, and the families represented there live with the effects of poverty and institutional dysfunction, as well as with their own unique family problems. This Lent was especially poignant because one of the young men who grew up playing on the playground, bugging the office staff and the pastor, and generally keeping things lively – Jarmaine Walton – was shot in the head and killed during Lent. His death made headlines not because he was fifteen, or because he died – another shooting, so what? His death made headlines because he was killed in our prize-winning new park near the brand-new baseball stadium, where the city is busy gentrifying.
Our Lenten observances were poignant because it seems we have lived Lent for so long, in so many ways, and we are still waiting for Easter. Where is the Easter for Ensley? Our young folks do not rise when they are shot (nor do the older ones); they are buried, their families are torn, there is a community march against violence – and then life goes on until the next shooting. We live among the vacant lots and tumble-down houses and liquor stores of Lent, on the streets where drug houses do more business than the store-front churches. We know Lent all too well. Where can we find Easter?
I’ve been thinking over the Holy Week liturgies, so full of graphic, tangible signs of our suffering and hope. Holy Family is a small parish. We pay our bills (sometimes with struggle) but you won’t find the 1% here. As with many historically black parishes, members come now from all over the city and the suburbs, finding home in this church as they don’t in newer, whiter parishes. (I think Pope Francis would probably feel at home here.)
On Holy Thursday we gather in the evening. We have a foot-washing. We have a real foot-washing. Everyone gets their feet washed, and everyone who wants to gets to wash feet. The “washers” sit where the altar rail used to be, and everyone lines up barefoot while the organist plays. Slowly the lines wind forward; we support each other to stand on one foot while dangling the other over the basin of warm water. Each foot gets washed and then dried. After your feet are washed, you take a turn supporting the next person in line, or perhaps you take a turn sitting and washing, or bringing pitchers of warm water and towels. It takes time to do this, and it’s done in a community spirit, with hugs and greetings. That kind of support is essential to live in a Lenten neighborhood. After the foot-washing comes the Eucharist, the meal that nourishes us for the work we have to do. And then the church is stripped. The liturgy ends abruptly – we walk out into the neighborhood and continue the work of foot-washing and feeding that we were doing in church. It’s all one.
On Good Friday we venerate the cross, read the Passion, and again are fed. The cross we venerated this year had just been taken down from St. Mary’s School, which had served children in the community for years. It is a dirty wooden cross, rotten in spots – a real-world cross. In the reading of the Passion we the gathered people called for the crucifixion of Jesus, and I kept thinking of Matthew 26: “As you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” I remember all the people I’ve turned away from Mary’s House, the difficulties in living with various folks – “You do it to me.” And I remember the hard-heartedness of our system, the underfunded schools, the lack of subsidized housing, the food deserts, the lack of medical care, the systemic undermining of poor families, especially black ones, that goes back to slavery days – “You do it to me.”
Jesus was killed because he called people to an alternative system, a foot-washing, food-sharing system. Our young people are killed because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they’re armed, or into gangs, or overseas in the military. If we accepted the call to a foot-washing, food-sharing system, such deaths could be avoided. The Roman authorities didn’t want to accept such a call: what would happen to the Empire? To their taxes? To their offices? To their legions? The Jewish authorities didn’t want to accept such a call: what would happen to their tithes? To their building programs? To their jobs and livelihoods? Even the disciples didn’t really want to accept that call – they wanted to sit at Jesus’ right hand in glory, not to wash their neighbors’ feet, and certainly not to be crucified. If we’re honest, we don’t want to accept the call either – there’s always something that we want to retain. Maybe we don’t want higher taxes, or maybe we don’t want “different” neighbors, or maybe we give enough already to charity, and we’ve worked hard for our money, and it’s our turn to enjoy ourselves. We’re certainly not ready to be crucified.
It seemed to me this year that the liturgies of Holy Week were all a final call to conversion, in case we’d missed it during Lent. We supported each other, were fed, faced the results of our hard-heartedness. Then at the Easter vigil we heard the seven readings of salvation history, the ongoing call to conversion through the ages. At Holy Family we went outside in the rain to light the Christ candle from the new fire. (Lots of umbrellas, and much suspense about the priest’s chasuble sweeping near the flames.) Then we walked back into the church to hear the Epistle and Gospel, to see the lights come on and hear bells ring. We were being given a little hint of what might be possible with our own change. We renewed baptismal vows, and then laved ourselves with holy water and had our hands anointed for service, and again were fed to go out and continue the work we’d begun.
I think of Walter Wink’s study of scripture, and of his insight that “kosmos” in the Gospels usually means “system”, rather than “world”. “My kingdom,” says Jesus, “is not of this system. If it were, my disciples would take up arms to defend me.” “Put down your sword. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” “Enough!” Jesus kingdom, or kindom, is the foot-washing, food-sharing system, the disarmed system. It bears almost no relation to the system in which we live. It’s as hard for us to imagine that kindom as it is to imagine a camel going through the eye of a needle, even a tapestry needle. As for getting into that kindom ourselves…. Forget it!
And yet….. if Jesus knew what he was doing, if Jesus was raised from the dead, if Easter is a true truth – then we are invited into that kindom. And it doesn’t matter how we define it or how we find it, because if what Jesus said and did is true, then there is a hidden (to us) law of the universe that can be uncovered by anyone. It just takes enough spunk to make a beginning, a leap of faith into doing something crazy and impossible. I think of a moment in the 1980’s, in Seattle: Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and his fund-raiser, Jim Burns, had both decided to refuse the portion of their salaries that went to pay for arms. There was great consternation among the staff of the Archdiocese, with most people expecting donations to plummet and income to suffer. The Archbishop went ahead, making a statement and explaining his reasons; he met with people concerned about his anti-nuclear stance, especially those in military parishes. He understood his action as arising quite simply from the Gospel. Months passed, and it became clear that donations to the Archdiocese, far from diminishing, had instead risen noticeably. Catholic Workers are familiar with this phenomenon: acts of conscience call forth a response.
As can also be seen in the example of Archbishop Hunthausen, acts of conscience also call forth crucifixions. This, of course, is the unwritten law that we fear. We don’t want to suffer, be demoted, lose our positions or our reputations, much less go to prison or endure physical pain. We know what the current system can do. It is the foot-washing and the food-sharing that enables us to step forth and take a risk. The resurrections we experience are small. Like those seeds that fall into the ground and die, our personal and communal existence can take on new life and purpose. Our risks and our acceptance of the consequences can give new hope to those around us. (I don’t know anyone who is more loved and respected in the Archdiocese of Seattle today than Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who lives quietly in retirement in Montana.)
Easter highlights a choice for us. We all die, in small ways and in the final sense. We can choose the context in which we die. We can lay down our lives (or our privilege, wealth, freedom) to join the foot-washers. Or we can resist, refuse to let go, clutch and hoard what we have. Washing feet and sharing bread leads to new life in small ways. It is our faith that washing feet, sharing bread, and giving our lives will also bring us to a final, incomprehensible, new life. Isn’t it?
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.