“It felt like an all-day funeral.” That’s what my 5-year-old mind told me on Good Friday. In my Italian grandparents’ home, the radio remained off and there was little talking. We went to church in silence at noon and stayed there until 3 pm.
After my dad returned from World War II, we moved into our own nuclear family home. The rituals became gentler, but we continued to spend three hours in church in programmed sadness and a growing sense of guilt. After all, I put Jesus on the cross. Or did I? It seemed that the Roman authorities were the ones who made the decision, not I.
By junior high, I decided to make the three hours a competition. I wanted to outlast everyone by kneeling straight up for three hours. After about two hours, my extended family members had all settled into a “three-point landing,” their butts against the pew.
I drew more energy as I saw people drop off, one by one. By 2:30 pm., I was the only one who was still kneeling up straight. There were some people behind me, but I thought they had caved in long ago. Back pew folks tended to come late or leave early — they were not even in the contest, a contest held strictly in the silence of my head. I don’t remember praying much.
When I took my first religion class in college, I realized the “funeral” for Jesus was about 2,000 years ago. He doesn’t die again every Good Friday. In fact, he rose three days after his death and now is perfectly happy in heaven. He doesn’t suffer anymore.
So how was I supposed to feel?
Then I took a course about St. Paul. I realized that Jesus does suffer now — in his body. Christians are the Body of Christ. He suffers now in those who are poor and sick, those who are imprisoned and refugees. He suffers in those who are victims of abuse, war, bullying, crime, racism and all manners of xenophobia. He suffers in those without health care, homes, food or jobs.
Back when I was director of the Franciscan Spirituality Center, we decided to walk a social justice “Way of the Cross.” The theme: Jesus Still Suffers in His Body.
We walked through the city, stopping to pray at places that symbolized the ways Jesus still suffers in his body. We paused at St. Clare Health Mission, the jail, and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, where they feed the homeless. We usually stopped at six other sites where Jesus still suffers today. We always concluded at the Mississippi River, a symbol of life, and a place to celebrate the Resurrection.
Besides empathizing with and praying for those who suffer in the world, Christians have an obligation to relieve their suffering. In the last judgment scene in Matthew 25, Jesus identifies with those in need by saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you visited me.” Jesus concludes, “As often as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”
A prayer of Teresa of Avila makes the same point: “Christ has no body but ours. No hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.”
The Franciscan Spirituality Center continues this ritual at 10 a.m. on Good Friday. People will gather at St. Rose Convent.
How does it feel to make this Way of the Cross? It varies for me each year. One man, eager to carry the cross for a while, told me it was his best spiritual experience in a long time.
I encourage you to join us and honor whatever you feel.