I sat in the back of the dimly lit cathedral on Maundy Thursday for the renewal of the ordination vows of the Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Tennessee. Outside, the brightly lit spring day was in full bloom. Inside, the lights were dimmed and a row of flickering candles on the altar pointed toward a sacred and shadowed space. There were about fifty priests in front of me, mostly with haloed gray hair bent forward in prayer. What struck me beyond the sea of black with old tweed sweaters over tired shoulders were the backs that looked a little humped. I imaged the years of prayers prayed for themselves, their congregations, and all the stories that were stored in their sealed hearts. Collectively they represented hundreds of years of stories and prayers offered for the sake of their part of the vineyard. I felt compassion for the years of listening and bearing the burdens of those who had suffered and reached out for a tender ear. I could imagine how they had presided over funerals, gone to hospitals in crises, and offered forgiveness and a way of acceptance in terrible times. There was holiness about the gathered community, singing in older, thin voices about sacred woundedness. There was something beautiful about the suffering they seemed to be carrying in their bodies, and I wanted to believe that it was worth it all.
Suffering places us always on holy ground, and that is why this week is called Holy. It is the week to remember the suffering and holiness of God that is present in that suffering. It is the embodied life of suffering and the reality of its toll under our eyes, on our chest, in our bellies, that places us near to the heart of God, especially this week. And witnessing the silent suffering of the priests on behalf of the communities they served brought me a tiny bit closer to the suffering of our Lord on this holiest of days.
Two years ago John Thatanamil, a professor of Theology, preached at St. Augustine’s that today was the coronation of love-- that offering your body for the sake of God’s love in the world was indeed the lived theology of the Gospel. We are called to lay down our life for a friend. When I imagine myself at the foot of the cross, grieving and weeping, I imagine that witnessing his suffering would bring me great compassion for the life he lived. I could see him making his way slowly to Jerusalem, stopping and stooping and listening and loving all those he encountered who were suffering. At each point, bent over, he would bear a little of their suffering for the sake of love. I can imagine seeing, in his bent and broken body, love pouring out of him, and wishing that I could bear such love.
He embodies on this holiest of days the ultimate suffering for the sake of love, hours on the cross for loving the whole world, and it makes me want to bear more for the sake of love. So I sit in dimly lit cathedrals on bright and sunny days and silence my phone to hear and witness others who give a testimony by their hunched backs and grey hair that loving one another is possible, and it brings us closer to the love of God that we long to know.