by M. Shawn Copeland, Ph.D.
Waiting is one of the most common and daily experiences of ordinary human living. If we awake before the alarm, we wait for it; if a spouse is in teh shower, we wait. We wait for the coffee to drip, the bread to toast, the egg to boil. We wait for the bus or train to pull in, the meeting to begin or to end. By being attentive to our attitudes, such ordinary events can, quite literally, teach us something about waiting.
Waiting can be a time to anticipate joys to come. How happy we are awaiting the arrival of a beloved friend. How eagerly we anticipate the first notes of a favorite concerto. What tender delight touches our hearts when we hear a child’s first and long awaited word.
Yet waiting can also be an experience of frustration and disquiet. How anxious we feel awaiting the report of medical tests. How nervous we feel awaiting the results of an arbitration meeting.
William Lynch, a Jesuit psychologist and theologian, writes of waiting as “one of the great human acts” which often includes “acceptance of darkness,” of obscurity and failure, of “fortitude and endurance beyond the merely rational.” In such instances, our very existential, moral and spiritual potential, indeed our very selves, are at stake in the waiting time.
The Christian Church takes that potential and weaves it into the texture of its liturgical life. From Advent to Christmastide, from Lent to Palm Sunday to Good Friday to Eastertide, from the Ascension to Pentecost through the long stretch of Ordinary Time, we Christians are taught to wait. These holy seasons, these waiting times test and stretch, purify and transform us. Our ability to wait forms a crucial link to our experience of Christian hope.
Passion, or Palm Sunday, initiates that week in the Church year that Christians cherish as no other: we name it Holy. Passion Sunday leads us into the solemn high feast of God’s dark glory and dreadful grandeur; it inaugurates the most awesome and terrifying time of waiting in the Church year. The liturgies of these days form the core of the Church’s self-understanding and set forth for us the meaning and nature of Christian life.
Yet during Holy Week we waver in waiting. Our zealous straining to catch a glimpse of the rabbi riding on the colt turns into tedium, then dulled belief. Perhaps this is so because the narratives of Jesus’ suffering and death intrude upon our notions of God, of God’s place, power and presence in our lives. Perhaps this is so because we know the end of the story that Palm Sunday begins. Technical rationality has dulled our reception of the resurrection. We already know that when the women arrive at the tomb on the third day, the stone will be rolled away, the grave will be empty, an angel will stand pointing to folded grave clothes; we already know that a resplendent Christ will pass through walls and show himself to cowering disciples. Because we already know, it is difficult for us to wait through Holy Week. But wait we must, for the very realization and meaning of our Christian identity is recapitulated in the waiting-time Holy Week demands.
Holy Week teaches that while nothing is impossible with God, we must wait for the realization of that possibility. This is difficult in an age that so values activity over waiting. We moderns are happiest when we have something to do. We plan and plot, work and produce. Through technological sophistication, we contrive to control the uncontrollable–future and destiny, success and defeat, history and mystery.
Passion Sunday counters this; it slows us down. The man who comes seated on the colt is a sign of contradiction. He is a threat to the God whom we have made over in our image, a God of high achievement and performance, majesty and power, triumph and transcendence. God in Jesus of Nazareth unnerves and disturbs us. His crucifixion and death disclose the chosen vulnerability of God, the willingness of God to come among us, to share our ordinary lot, to suffer with us, to suffer for us, to teach us to suffer suffering. Jesus refuses all power to determine the choices of those who decide his fate and relinquishes all authority to overturn the vicious trajectory that fear and anger have conceive. He stands before us messiah and king, but not the kind of messiah and king for which we, too, so long have waited. Rather, Jesus of Nazareth stands before us not as omnipotent sovereign, but bruised and battered, exposed and vulnerable, worn out in love to lead us to his beloved Abba God.
Holy Week leads us into deeper relationship with God and with others. We have become a people who value doing over being. Passion Sunday invites us, quite literally, during the coming days of the week to stop doing and be with God. This week is a time to wait with in simple silence, offering our presence, our very selves; a time to express our love in acts of compassionate solidarity with the poor and excluded who suffer concretely and unbeautifully. This week is holy for the One whom it lifts up before us: the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the power of God, the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:25).
Today we pray with Thea Bowman: “Let us resolve to make this week holy by claiming Christ’s redemptive grace and living holy lives. The Word became flesh and redeemed us by his holy life and holy death. This week especially, let us accept redemption by living grateful, faithful, prayerful, generous, just and holy lives.”
[Quotations from William F. Lynch, Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless; and Chritian Koonntz, ed. Thea Bowman: Handing on Her Legacy.]
* This reflection appeared in To Live the Passion and Compassion of Jesus: Reflections for Lent 2003, published by Pax Christi USA.