Eventually three people sat in that row: a man named Robert, a man with a slow mind and dirty clothing but a kind smile and greeting when he speaks; a woman in a powered wheelchair who attends mass with her attentive though sometimes gruff husband (or he may just be going deaf–hence the loud, sharp answers); and a man who I haven’t seen at mass in a while. Seeing him today reminded me of this. He looks visibly older, thinner, paler. He sat on the end and patted my hand when I laid it on his arm in greeting.
The priest at the parish had a close brush with death this past fall as he traveled in the Holy Land. Today he is back and celebrating mass. But, he still fights the cancer that is eating him. Last summer he was somehow younger–with a quick smile and filled-out body. Today he uses a walker-with-wheels that doubles as a seat. He pauses and drinks water during the prayers.
On Good Friday we read the story of The Passion from the Gospel of St. John from the garden of Gethsemane through Peter’s denial and Pilate’s condemation all the way through the death of Christ on a cross. Then there is silence. Eventually a cross is brought to the front and the congregation is invited to process to the front, one by one, to kiss the wood. I went to the front, kissed where the crucified’s feet would be. The three people in the handicapped row didn’t, they were bound by their state.
Later we prayed the “Our Father,” and they joined hands. A stooped, fancy senior citizen grasped my hand for the prayer (I usually don’t hold hands for this part). Her fingers were bent and crooked from arthritis, but her nails were still painted. She held the hands of the handicapped man, who held the hand of the woman in the wheelchair, who held the hand of Robert.
The hardest prayer to pray is still “Thy Will Be Done,” and yet, they prayed it. We prayed it.
And, as the service ended, we sang about clinging to the Old Rugged Cross. The Old Rugged Cross represents suffering in the deepest sense, but also the commitment to give one’s all. And, there they were: the priest dying of cancer who still leads his people in prayer, the almost-homeless man, the old married couple, and on and on.
Today I celebrated the cross with the people of God.
Happy Good Friday, if that can be said.