Monday, March 25, 2013

Why Processions?

Homily for Palm (Passion) Sunday, 2013

As many of you know, once again this year we are preparing for the Way of the Cross Procession this weekend.  It is something of a novelty for us, this kind of public, outdoor procession, but in most of the Catholic world, processions are not actually all that uncommon.  I was in Spain during holy week a few years back and the week was marked by processions and pageantry.  In Italy and many other parts of the Catholic world there are continual processions commemorating various occasions or events in the life of the Church.

But we are not as used to such things in these parts – particularly in New England.  I guess we do have parades, but even in parades, half the time the people are driving something – a tractor or a fire truck or the big L.L. Bean boot or something.

Maybe it has to do with living in a cold or mosquito-infested climate.  We tend to stay in screened in areas.  And it also might have to do with the rugged individualism and an understated way of life that is typical up here.  We can imagine a local asking: “Why do you people have to go and make a big show of things.  If you want a parade, do it in your living room where you can parade around to your heart’s content in your slippers and bath robe for all I care.”

No – I think that it is safe to say that processions do not come naturally to Mainers.
Yet as we enter Holy Week today, we enter a time full of processions here at church.

Today, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, we recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  In churches throughout the world, Catholics gather in places that are distant from their church and walk in procession with palms, marking our entrance into the Holy ground of Holy week with our Lord.  Then on Holy Thursday, after receiving Holy Communion, the people process with their priests, carrying the Blessed Sacrament to an altar of repose where they will keep watch in prayer with the Lord, recalling the night that our Lord spent with his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane.  On good Friday, the Cross is solemnly processed into the church, and then we will all process up to the cross to venerate it as we recall Christ’s great sacrifice of love for all people.  And finally, at the Easter vigil, Mass begins with the service of light outside of the entrance of the church as the Easter fire is lit and then all of the people and ministers process into the church with lighted candles, filling the sanctuary with the new light of Christ, risen from the dead.  One procession after another, really.

So I think that we who are somewhat procession-challenged, we Mainers, may find it helpful to have a little procession primer as we begin Holy Week.

Why processions?  Why does the Church encourage us to move around?  Why not just stay put in our pews or in our homes for that matter?

Entering into a procession speaks to something very important: that we are not mere passive onlookers as time marches past us.  To be a part of a procession is to be a protagonist, to be involved in the drama of life that is unfolding, to be a part of the scene: to be counted, to be on the record.  And I think that perhaps this is the most challenging reality of a procession for many of us.  We are not comfortable being pegged by others, being counted, being judged.  We do not want to enter the street and submit to the scrutiny of the bystander.  We prefer the anonymity of the sidelines, prefer our lives to be our own, our beliefs to shielded from scrutiny: not to be accountable for our actions, not to live under the public eye.  All of us, at a basic level, would rather be the spectator who judges than the actor who is judged.

But this is a toxic tendency for a Christian, and one that I think is having a tremendously negative impact on the Church, especially here in Maine.  The unwillingness to take part in something we do not control, unwillingness to be judged as belonging to anyone or anything other than ourselves.  To be branded.  Even to be branded as belonging to Christ and his Church.

And yet the irony is that in trying to remain spectators, in refusing to have a part, to be counted, we cannot escape the scene.  There are no sidelines in life.  We are either loving God and others or we are not.  There are no spectators to salvation.  All of us are part of the pilgrimage of human life on earth: we either accept that and work to follow Christ, or we fight him the whole way, but there are no bleachers, there are no bleachers.

Jesus Christ teaches us this week in an indisputable way that even God is not a spectator.  That God is anything but a spectator.  In Christ, the creator of all things enters into human history as its greatest protagonist, and he calls us to follow him: to leave the false refuge we seek in the bleachers and with faith and trust to instead enter into the great drama of salvation at work around us.  Spectators don’t love their neighbor, they just watch their neighbor.  Spectators don’t do good to those who persecute them, they just watch those who persecute and are persecuted.  Spectators don’t love God with their whole heart and mind and strength, they just watch– and they don’t even understand who they are watching because they have not walked in his footsteps.  Holy week teaches us, these processions are meant to teach us, that just as Christ is not a spectator God, neither can we be spectator Christians.  Christ has made us actors, he has given us his mission to accomplish, his word to preach, his Heavenly Father to love, even his cross to carry.

As he enters Jerusalem today, as he passes by, his presence walking among us asks each of us a question we cannot dodge, no matter how ruggedly independent we Mainers might be: will we be counted, will we take our places with Christ, will we join his procession to the father, the pilgrimage of love even unto death?  Will we take up our cross and follow him together with our brothers and sisters, or will our lives be one prolonged attempt to hide on the sidelines, sidelines that don’t even exist.  And so we process.  Why?  Because sometimes our feet follow our hearts, and sometimes our hearts follow our feet.

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