Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

The Catholic faith, with all of the elaborate liturgies and rich traditions, is a testament to the incarnational reality of Christ. Rather than simply receiving Christ spiritually, we consume what looks like bread and tastes like wine but which we profess is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Rather than simply believing that we are forgiven, we profess our sins aloud and then hear the words of absolution extended as we are reconciled to God. Though not dogma, we profess to have the crown of thorns, nails from the cross, pieces of the true cross, and even the cloth wrapped around Jesus before He was laid in the tomb. The physical realities of the God-man are brimming in the Catholic churches around the world.

On a recent pilgrimage to Rome with some students, I was able to climb the Scala Santa or Holy Stairs. These twenty-eight steps of marble are believed to be the stairs Christ ascended as the Jewish authorities turned Him over to Pilate. Transported from the Holy Land to Rome at the request of Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, pilgrims have come for centuries to climb these steps on their knees as they recall the Passion of Jesus Christ. The ardent devotion of thousands upon thousands of pilgrims began to wear away at the stones and it was a desire of the Church to preserve them for future Christians. Around three hundred years ago, the steps were covered with wood to prevent their further deterioration.

A restoration process that has unfolded over the past few years led to the uncovering of the steps. As the restoration neared its end, for a few weeks during May and June, the Church allowed pilgrims to ascend the uncovered steps on their knees. The pilgrimage I was on happened to fall during the final week of the steps being uncovered.

Nine years ago, I climbed the steps during my first trip to Rome. Knowing the steps would be uncovered this time, I didn’t really consider how that would alter the experience of climbing them. The deep grooves in the marble, formed by thousands upon thousands of knees before me, made the ascent a bit more complicated than when it was on planks of wood. How many knees had been on these same steps? How many kisses had been placed on these marble slabs that formed the path Jesus took to condemnation? How many saints had made this same pilgrimage?

Continue reading “Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven”

Ever-New

Ever-New

Do you remember?  Do you remember?

The voices are hushed but brimming with excitement.  It is dark with only flickering candlelight illuminating joyous faces.  Of course they all remember.

By all rights, this should be a story that is told with sadness, one where sorrow should be the predominant feeling.  It should be tragic and riddled with painful memories.  That is not the case, however.

They can barely keep the laughter at bay.  Wide smiles show how their hearts desire to break out of their chests.  They are simultaneously on the brink of crying and shouting, so full are their hearts.

Do you remember?  Why is this night different from all other nights?

The second question is a carryover from their Jewish roots–but it is fitting here.  It is perfectly fulfilled here.

There are numerous possible narrators to the story, each holding a piece that contributes to the full picture.  John is there and he tells of His last moments on the cross and the ache in his heart as he watched Him die.  Mary Magdalene speaks of her sleepless night, the long Sabbath, and rushing with spices to the tomb early on the first day of the week.  Peter speaks of walking into the empty tomb, marveling at the clothes that remain where the body once was placed.  Each person adds another detail to a story they have told over and over again.  Yet it is one of which they can never tire.  It isn’t simply a story from the past but rather re-tells an encounter they had with the living God.

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Saturday evening as I stood in a dark church while the Easter candle was being lit, I considered something I never have before: what would it have been like to be at the second Easter?  The first Easter would have been incredible, but as I stood in the church, it was very clear that I wasn’t at the first Easter.  But the second Easter?  When they gather together to re-live what had happened a year ago?  I could imagine that.  If I closed my eyes and focused on the prayers, I could feel this uncontrollable joy welling up in my heart.  Before long, I was fighting back tears and grinning like a fool in the darkness.

I had encouraged my students to delve into Holy Week and to consider the well-known story in a new light.  Chances are really good that none of them remembered what I said, but I found myself taking my own advice.  What if I wasn’t at Easter Vigil (like I am every year) but rather was at the first anniversary of the first Easter?  They couldn’t even wait until Sunday to gather.  Instead, they gather together in the darkness to hold a vigil for the Resurrection.

A lot can change in a year.  One year earlier, they were wrapping their minds around the Passion, vacillating between numbness and crushing sorrow.  Even in the finding of the empty tomb and the first appearances of Jesus, there were still so many questions and much confusion.  A year later and they were witnesses of the Resurrection, filled with the Holy Spirit, and traveling to proclaim the Gospel.  They didn’t have all of their questions answered but their mission was certain.  Gathering together, their joy grew exponentially as they considered again those three sacred days.

Do you remember?  Do you remember?  The new followers, the ones who were not there one year earlier, listen eagerly to the story, caught up in the drama of human salvation.  Even as they re-tell the Passion and Death of Jesus there is an undercurrent of joy.  They enter into His death deeply, recalling where they had been during those moments of agony, but they know that He lives now.  With solemnity, they trace the providence of God from the beginning.  From creation to freedom from Egypt to the challenges of the prophets, they recall how God had prepared them for the fulfillment of all the old covenants.  Soon they are talking about Easter Sunday, with all the little details pouring in:
“I thought He was a gardener!”  Mary Magdalene recalls.
“I ran faster than Peter,” John says with a youthful wink at the Vicar of Christ.
“I didn’t go to the tomb, because I knew He had risen,” Mary, the mother of Jesus, says with a smile of remembrance.

The central point of Christianity is not about following rules or attending excessively long religious services.  Christianity is about encountering the person of Jesus Christ.  Everything else is aimed at fulfilling or bringing about that encounter.  As I sat in Easter Sunday Mass, listening to the priest’s homily, I couldn’t help but glance around a little and see some tired, bored faces.  And I wondered, “How many of these people here have never really encountered Jesus Christ?”  They attend Mass because their husband or wife or parents want them to or because they feel some guilt if they should stop attending.  How sad would it be if a relationship with God that is intended to be marked with joy is instead filled with simply surface level commitment.

The joy of Easter should not be mainly that we can now eat or do what we previously could not eat or do during Lent.  It should be because we once again remember that Jesus Christ is the Savior we need.  He died, He is risen, and that changes everything.  It is not old news or historical details but is something that is ever-ancient yet ever-new.  In that dark church on the eve of Easter, I thought of the joy and fulfillment that filled the hearts of the early Christians as they recalled the previous year.  And I longed for that joy only to realize that it could and should be mine.  We should be like the early Christians, gathering with hearts of praise to recall what the Lord has done for us.

Do you remember?  Do you remember?  He died, He rose, and He lives.  And it continues to change my entire life. 

El Cuerpo de Cristo

Setting: June, Rabanal del Camino, Spain

We are upstairs in the pilgrim house dorm room when piano music reaches our ears.  The playing is beautiful and my sister and I guess who is responsible for the beauty.  I guess one of our fellow pilgrims, Michael, and my sister guesses Fr. Javier, our beloved priest.  Curious, I creep down the outside garden steps and past the window that looks into the conference room with the piano.  It is Fr. Javier playing.

I leave for the chapel across the street for Confession.  When I return, the lovely music is still filling the house.  I peek into the room and my two traveling companions are there, listening.  I join them.  Sometimes I watch Fr. Javier play, glancing between his fingers and the music.  Other times, I sit with my eyes closed, simply delighting in the sound of classical music washing over me.  He finishes, we clap, and he smiles.

“What else?  Something by a Spanish composer.  Ah, yes.  This one.”  He finds the page.  “I’m a romantic.”  I want to chime in, “Me too!”  Fr. Javier continues, “This one is called “Eva and Walter,”  It is very nice.  Very simple.”

It is both.  As he plays, I am picturing Eva and Walter sitting on a bench or walking through a park.  At one point I believe I am in the perfect moment in time.  Fr. Javier is filling the house with music, a gentle but steady rain is pouring through the opening in the garden roof, and Patricia (the hospitalera) is it the kitchen preparing supper.  Here we are–a lovely family that eats together and prays together.  This is “El Cuerpo de Cristo.”

                                                   A little “Eva y Walter” for you to enjoy!

I’ll see you in the Eucharist

It was March 19th, 2004.  Emotions ran high as we prepared to watch my 19 year old sister enter a Carmelite cloister.  The morning hours were spent with the knowledge that these would be some of the last moments when we could have physical contact with her.  Postulant garb was laid out in one of the bedrooms and we helped my sister assemble her outfit.  There were no instructions and we weren’t extremely skilled in habits, but it did provide some amusement.  We gathered to take our final pictures together and we were doing so well until my emotions got in the way.  Each of my other sisters managed to smile and have beautiful pictures but with me, I just began to weep.  These emotions were re-echoed on the faces of everyone else in the room.  Even my dad returned with reddened eyes and I had only once seen him cry at this point.  Eventually I pulled it together for a terrible picture and we proceeded to the chapel. 

In the chapel we prayed a prayer together as a family.  Then we said our goodbyes and it was a funeral of sorts.  With a twinkle in her eye, joy evidenced by the peace in her countenance, my sister glanced back at us and spoke her last words to us before entering the cloister:

I’ll see you in the Eucharist.

My sister was instructed to knock on the door with the strength of the banging on the door being equal to how long she desired to stay.  The door was lucky to remain unscathed.  Cloistered sisters with long veils lined the inside of the hallway once the door opened.  A small sister, the Reverend Mother, stepped forward and instructed my sister to kiss the cross and then kiss the floor.  All too soon, my sister was swept inside, the door closed, and the singing of the sisters faded and we were left only with aching hearts and wet faces. 

At that time, the words she spoke did not resonate in my heart or bring me any consolation.  Instead, I almost felt more of a sting from them.  What was that to me when what I wanted was my sister present to me in her humanity, in her voice a phone call away, in her embrace when I was crying, in her presence at Christmas?  I wanted her physical presence not simply a spiritual connection.

Over nine years have passed since this blessed day and the Lord has worked wonders in this heart of mine.  Yes, I do still desire the presence of my sister when I think of getting married or having children.  Of course I would want her to visit my house or hold my children.  But I have come to understand this mystery of the presence of the Church in the Eucharist.

This past semester I taught the New Testament and I realized the profound beauty that is found in the book of Acts.  We were covering the part where Saul encounters Christ on the road to Damascus.  Saul hears this Voice ask, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  One of my favorite lessons was talking to my students about how Christ associated Himself with His apostles and that to persecute the Church was to persecute Christ.  This lead to talking about how if the Church is the Body of Christ, then when we receive the Eucharist we receive Jesus and the universal Church.  Of course they began to wonder how we can be eating each other, but I stressed that when we receive the Eucharist we are united to the entire Church–the Church Triumphant, Suffering, and Militant.  And then I shared with them the story of my cloistered sister and how this beautiful mystery of the Eucharist is what helps me endure our separation.

The beauty of receiving the Eucharist is of course found in the reality of receiving Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  Yet I think Our Lord reveals His deep goodness in that by receiving Jesus we are intimately linked to one another.  When I receive Our Lord I am connected with my sisters in religious life, with my friends scattered across the country, with my grandparents hopefully in Heaven, and with the saints who have gone before me.  I’ve come to understand this unifying aspect of the Eucharist through my travels to Europe as I encountered the beauty of Christ in basilicas, shrines, and places of martyrdom.  I deepened this understanding as I met the Church in Honduras and realized that we are one body, that though I may never see them again we are united through Christ, but tangibly through the Eucharist.

Each Catholic has their own special devotions but mine is to Our Lord in the Eucharist.  I love priests–because of their kindness and holiness but primarily because they make Our Lord present to me.  They make tangible Christ’s love by giving me the Body of Christ.  They make tangible Christ’s forgiveness as they absolve me from my sins through the ministry of the Church.  I remember sitting in Honduras with the pyx in my hands that held Our Lord and wanting to just rest forever.  I’ve heard stories of people being martyred for the Eucharist and I desire the same.  A group of sisters came and spoke at my college one time and they said their fourth vow was defense of the Eucharist with their lives.  I found that incredibly attractive.  At times I’ve thought that my love for the Eucharist should lead to me being an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion but I nearly shake when I think of holding Jesus and giving Him to others–I’m not certain I could remain calm throughout that.

On this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I encourage you to renew again your love for Our Lord and to remember that each time you receive the Eucharist it is a personal encounter with the living God.  Yes, the consecrated host tastes the same as bread but He is truly present.  A student of mine argued with me that Jesus was spiritually present but not physically present.  Not so.  He is physically present albeit in a different way than the physical body we have.  It is a mystery of the Church.  Christ understands humanity through and through.  He knows that we need Him and that we desire a physical presence.  Deo gratias!  He gives us that presence by leaving His very self.

Wherever you are—regardless of the time difference, physical distance, or culture–we are united through the power of the Eucharist. 

I’ll see you in the Eucharist.

Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, take me into your very self and open my heart to the love that surpasses all understanding.