By Jeanette Arnquist
In my parish, after the liturgy on Holy Thursday, we follow our pastor in procession to the altar of repose singing the Taize chant, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray.” The music is so beautiful, the incense so sweet, the mood so sacred that it is easy to stay, to spend half an hour or an hour just being.
The challenge is how and where to “stay” and “be” the other 364 days of the year.
Staying and being means just that. It means immersing oneself in pain and suffering. It means being present and not hurrying off to something else. It means staying awake and aware of the pain, being one with the suffering. It means accepting that in this moment, staying is important.
Jesus taught for three years and at the end of his course, like any good teacher, gave a final exam. It can be found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, verses 31-46. Jesus tells us that he is himself present in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. If we want to be present to Jesus, to watch and pray, to stay and be with him, we will spend time with those at the margins of our society. We will actually be present with them. We will open ourselves to their pain, even though it is easier to run away from it. We will hear their stories and come to some understanding of their situation.
Our culture seems to like simple answers that don’t demand much of us. It is too easy to blame the victim and absolve ourselves of all responsibility. It is easy to think that we have avoided the painful situation by our own cleverness, hard work or holiness. Being in touch with the brokenness of others and of our world helps us be in touch with our own brokenness. And only through our own weakness and brokenness can we find the strength to become agents of prophetic change.
Staying with the pain and staying awake increases our capacity for compassion and opens the door to solidarity. It enables us to avoid judgement. It is only through this that we can ground our work for social change.
As we journey through Lent, let Jesus be our guide. Jesus was fully present to the woman at the well, the man born blind, and Martha, Mary and Lazarus, in spite of the advice of his companions and culture. Being with the woman, drinking the water she drew and conversing with her was completely culturally prohibited. Even the disciples (slow learners that they were) thought that the man’s blindness was punishment for his sins or those of his parents. And everyone thought Jesus was crazy for opening the tomb of Lazarus. But there he was, being present to the people and their pain.
Jesus spent his time with oppressed people who were suffering occupation by the Romans. They were poor and mostly without power or wealth. Jesus hung out with people who didn’t have such good reputations or standing. Tax collectors, fishermen, prostitutes, lepers, the blind and the lame were not considered the upper curst of society. Some theologians think that the company Jesus kept angered the religious leaders so much that it contributed to their call to crucify him.
Jesus called us to follow him. As we move through Lent toward Holy Week, let us follow him into the presence of pain and suffering, where we will, in fact, encounter him. Let our hearts be broken so that they can be filled with love and grace.
Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity & Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tucson, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.