Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish writer and poet. A Catholic, he lived in Warsaw during the Second World War, then served in the Polish government before defecting and eventually coming to the United States. He was a friend of Pope John Paul II, and the Pope was fascinated with Milosz’s effort to try and write religious poetry in a post-religious world.
Milosz addressed a poem to the Holy Spirit, speaking of his need for a sign to help him believe. In his poem, “Veni Creator,” Milosz asked “that the statue in the church lift its hand, only once, just for me.” Then, acknowledging that the Holy Spirit does not do such things but works instead through human signs, the poet asked the Spirit to “call one person, anywhere on earth. . .and allow me, when I look at that person, to marvel at you.”
Holy Week is here, and once again we read the Passion. Once again we act out the supreme irony of our faith: on one day we praise God and, Holy Week is here, and once again we read the Passion. Once again we act out the supreme irony of our faith: on one day we praise God and, on the next, we turn our backs upon Him. on the next, we turn our backs upon Him. Even the palms we hold today are a symbol of the ebb and flow of our practice of our faith.
Older Catholics can give a long instruction on how to care for sacred objects and what to do with them when they need to be disposed of. Today, however, many younger Catholics do not have the same appreciation for an object that has been blessed. Our palms are blessed for the sacred purpose of praising God. Many Catholics take their palms home and place them behind their crucifixes or behind a picture of Jesus. But like our faith, even though the palms have been blessed, most palms will be treated rather carelessly. After Masses blessed palms will litter the floor of the church and even be gathered up from the parking lot. Later, when we pull into the car wash, some of us will discover that we have left a blessed palm in the car. It will be thrown out with the trash from the back seat.
This is how many of us live our faith. We ourselves are blessed, but then we dispose of our lives very carelessly. We have been given faith in a God who gave His life for us, and while we might have some gratitude, like the palms that seem to serve no other purpose after our Palm Sunday procession, we forget our faith after Mass. Like the people in the Gospel we first say, “Hosanna!” but then quickly find ourselves shouting, “Crucify Him!”
Would not faith be easier if the Holy Spirit did move the arm of a statue when we asked for proof that our prayer is being heard? We might think so, but recall the seven signs worked by Jesus in John’s Gospel: turning water into wine, healing the son of a royal official, healing a man born lame, feeding 5,000, walking on water, and raising Lazarus to life. These all made a major impression, but here we are today playing the part of the witnesses of these signs by shouting, “Crucify him!” Certainly raising dead Lazarus to life made an impression. The Gospel says that “many of the Jews who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.” But for how long? Others who witnessed the same event began to plot not only how to kill Jesus, but how to kill Lazarus as well.
We want inspiration. We need motivation. We need that one person at whom we can look and just by the look find everything we need. We have that one person in the face of Jesus Christ, but we have to look at him. Unfortunately we usually prefer not to look. We want Jesus to be part of our life, but we do not want Him to interfere with our life.
As an example of this we can look at Pope Francis. We love his words and his actions, but we become most uncomfortable when we are asked to do the things he does. Most of us admire it when someone else goes to the prison, when someone else walks through the ghetto, when someone else feeds the homeless at the soup kitchen, when someone else actively advocates for the poor and homeless. We admire it when someone else does it; but it’s uncomfortable to look the example in the face and remember that we are called to “do this in memory of me.”
Isaiah writes of the challenge of staying faithful to the teacher we know is holy. After He healed Lazarus, people wanted to kill Jesus. After Pope Francis criticized the excesses of global capitalism, he was called a Marxist.
Today we look into the face of the One who never turned His back on God and who, in being so faithful to His Father, gave us the perfect sign of faith.