News flash: Jesus sighting

I suspect when our kids look back upon the faith moments of their childhood, they will have memories of Christmas, yes, and the parade of Sundays of Ordinary Time, but what will really stick with them is Holy Week. I checked this out with my daughter, who said, “Yeah, Mom, the thing about Holy Week is that it’s really happening, not just something honoring what happened in the past.”

Right. We celebrate the Fourth of July, but the Founding Fathers are long gone. Likewise Elvis. Jesus, however, is very much alive, right here, with us. Theologian Luke T. Johnson in U.S. Catholic: “A dead person stands still; a living person . . .  can continue to surprise…. Every time [Christians] pray to God through Jesus, there’s the conviction that Jesus is more powerfully alive and more available to humans now than in his earthly ministry.” Wow. Imagine if we took that to heart.

Holy Thursday. Off come shoes and socks for the come-one-come-all footwashing, which splashes along for a good 45 minutes, buoyed by joyful songs. Our pastor charges around with spare towels, toting buckets of warm water. His grin embraces every corner of the building.

When Mass ends, he leads us around the block, holding in his hands the Blessed Sacrament, with the servers ringing bells before him and our songs behind him. Afterward our family races for the car to start Holy Thursday Late Night, our pilgrimage to Chicago’s beautiful old churches, each with a skeleton crew in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Peter, James, and John conked out as Jesus prayed on this night in the Garden of Gethsemane—near midnight, this fact is lost on no one.

On Friday we gather at noon in the park, mothers with strollers, kids on bikes. Men in Roman helmets and bare legs wield whips of short clothesline to strike Jesus. Pilate and Veronica are on hand; young Mary of Nazareth wails aloud at her son’s crucifixion. I am not close enough to see if she is truly weeping. But I certainly am. We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

In the evening we gather in the desolate church. The tabernacle hangs open, deserted. My daughter, the altar server, lies prostrate on the floor with the priest and the deacon to begin the service. The silence stretches on forever. After the passion reading, the pastor abandons his pulpit, sitting down on the steps into the sanctuary. His homily speaks of human pain, of clinging to the belief that God is at our side despite our doubts. (Later he confesses to us, “I have no idea where that came from.”) One by one we walk up to venerate the cross, creaky knees bending, tears silently wiped aside. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” sings the lone guitarist. “O, sometimes it causes me to tremble.”

On Holy Saturday we gather around the fire outside of church to light the new Easter candle, with those to be baptized standing closest to the blaze. The deacon hoists the candle, processing with it into the black church. “Light of Christ!” he sings in four languages. The pastor climbs right into the disguised wading pool and joyfully dumps brimming pitchers of water over the heads of the 15 new Catholics, while we applaud wildly, belting out “Alleluia!” each time.

These moments are not like a going to a movie—no one is just “watching” anything. We are doing. A friend says, “We’re making it present by doing it again.”

“It’s real,” says my daughter. “We wash each other’s feet. We read the Gospel—‘He is risen!’ Everybody feels like Jesus just died and rose—even though it was 2,000 years ago. Jesus really died, and now he is risen, so let us celebrate!”

—by Catherine O’Connell-Cahill from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

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