Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology, offers a reflection for Holy Week.
This week Christians across the world mark the holiest days of the Christian calendar: Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, all leading up to the great feast of Easter, the Resurrection of the Lord. As is usually the case, these Christian holy days occur during Passover (this year, March 27-April 4), and Jews and Christians together mark the holy foundations of our faith traditions. The readings used in many Christian communities on Thursday, April 1, put before us three moments of the ancient wisdom that guides us still.
In Exodus 12, Moses prescribes the Passover meal marking the night the people of Israel escaped Egypt to begin new lives in freedom: “This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the LORD… This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.” Let us never forget the day of our liberation.
I Corinthians 11 reminds us how Jesus, a devout Jew, shared that same Passover meal with his friends the night before he died, a meal St. Paul hoped would be ever a living reality for the emerging Christian community: “Sisters and brothers: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Let this table be the gathering place for our community even today.
The 13th chapter of John, a Gospel dedicated to bringing new life to our revered traditions, helps us to reimagine Holy Thursday by not only rehearsing the Last Supper, but more intimately and intensely by acts of humble service: “During supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist…” Serve one another, let not fear or pride keep you apart.
Perhaps never before has the entire human community suffered a trauma as deadly as COVID-19. Millions have died, more have suffered and grieved, and all of us have found our lives disrupted. This same year the sins of systemic racism have once again been dragged into the light of day, and hard truths about ourselves and our society once again provoke us to think, act, and live holy lives, steeped in compassion and justice. And sadly there is yet more: callous disrespect for the preciousness of life from conception to death; regimes of violence that ruin societies and shatter the bonds among nations; the sin of ecological degradation that harms all living beings—and all these are woes without settled boundaries. No longer can Jews or Christians or Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, or people of other faiths large and small, expect any separate peace just on our own. In this holy season, we must then learn to pray together for the gifts of humble service, community and liberation that make our weeks and our lives holy.
I close with words Pope Francis spoke just a few weeks ago during his visit to Iraq, when he met with members of many religious communities on the plain of Ur, traditional birthplace of Abraham:
On our own journey, we are called to leave behind those ties and attachments that, by keeping us enclosed in our own groups, prevent us from welcoming God’s boundless love and from seeing others as our brothers and sisters. We need to move beyond ourselves, because we need one another. The pandemic has made us realize that no one is saved alone…
Throughout history, we have frequently pursued goals that are overly worldly and journeyed on our own, but with the help of God, we can change for the better. It is up to us, today’s humanity, especially those of us, believers of all religions, to turn instruments of hatred into instruments of peace. It is up to us to appeal firmly to the leaders of nations to make the increasing proliferation of arms give way to the distribution of food for all. It is up to us to silence mutual accusations in order to make heard the cry of the oppressed and discarded in our world: all too many people lack food, medicine, education, rights and dignity! It is up to us to shed light on the shady maneuvers that revolve around money and to demand that money not end up always and only reinforcing the unbridled luxury of a few. It is up to us to preserve our common home from our predatory aims. It is up to us to remind the world that human life has value for what it is and not for what it has, that the lives of the unborn, the elderly, migrants and men and women, whatever the color of their skin or their nationality, are always sacred and count as much as the lives of everyone else! It is up to us to have the courage to lift up our eyes and look at the stars, the stars that our father Abraham saw, the stars of the promise.
Words of wisdom in this holy season, to renew in holiness all the days before us.
This piece appeared in the April 1, 2021 edition of "Practicing Hope," the daily newsletter of Harvard's Memorial Church. To subscribe, visit the Memorial Church Website.