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Today, Holy Thursday, begins the Triduum, the three days that recollect and celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Most of us know this story well. We’ve pondered that journey. But how often do we think about the people who walked the path with Jesus?

Simon of Cyrene was picked out of the crowd to help Jesus carry the cross. How and why was he chosen? Well, we know he was from Africa. He might have been a person of color. Or the Roman guards simply noticed he wasn’t Jewish — he was “other.” Or he might have expressed sympathy for Christ. Whatever the reason, he is an outsider, someone from the fringes — the type of person Jesus favored in life.

The women of Jerusalem wept for Jesus and were comforted by him. Women weren’t exactly valued commodities in Jesus’ day. They were mostly seen as possessions, with no voice or agency of their own. Yet Jesus turns to women again and again in his life and along the road to his death — he listens to them. He values them. He speaks to them. Again, Jesus chooses the outsider.

Veronica wipes Jesus’ face. Again, a woman does the unthinkable, and Jesus rewards her with kindness.

The penitent thief (sometimes called Dismas) is crucified next to Jesus. What do we know about him? People were crucified for all sorts of crimes in Jesus’ day, but to be crucified for mere petty theft would have been a long shot, unless the thief was from the lower classes, or worse, a slave. Or the theft was far from petty — it was violent and extreme. There is some conjecture that the “thieves” were more like terrorists. Once again, it someone from the fringes, someone most unlikely, who responds to Christ’s call. In radically changing his heart, Dismas is promised paradise.

Women. Foreigners. Criminals. These are the people who walked the way of the cross with Jesus. Not his apostles. Not religious leaders. It was the most unlikely of people who shared the journey.

People are always amazed when I tell them that SueBE, Ruth and I have never met in person. Yet in my dark nights of the soul, they consistently walk with me. This Easter, take some time to ponder who walks with you. You just might be surprised.

“It’s no big deal,” my sister says on the phone of her recent hysterectomy. “Of all my surgeries, it was the easiest.” Of course, this is a woman who has had surgery on her eyeball. And endured a double mastectomy. It is not surprising to me that she is stoic. She knows the way of pain.

The way of pain is also Jesus’ way. Imagine, if you will, being tortured for hours by Roman guards, kept up all night, having a crown of thorns digging inexorably into your head…then being loaded up with a wooden crucifix you can barely lift and having to drag it to your own execution site. All this before getting nailed to said cross and dying of exsanguination or collapsed lungs or shock or all three. And yet the gospel-writers never include anything about Jesus hollering curses or demanding morphine or even venting slightly with a few cross words (pun intended). Jesus takes on the worst physical pain — and the pain of all the sins of the world — and still finds time to take care of his mother, forgive a thief and absolve his murderers. Now that is something.

Pain is lonely. It cuts a person off from others. There is no “sharing” pain; each person’s pain is unique. When I broke my ankle many years ago, I felt pretty bad. Then a friend of mine related the story of how she broke her ankle. Just hearing the story made me know that what I was experiencing was, frankly, laughable.

Pain is dehumanizing, reducing most of us to our worst selves. When an animal is in pain, it may hide. If confronted, it will bite. We humans do this too, in our own way. Neither strategy lessens the pain, but the kind of thinking that goes along with pain is seldom rational.

Pain has become something of a dirty word in this country. We will go to great lengths to extinguish it with pills, shots and other tinctures, both of the legal and illegal variety. No one wants to walk through pain. But pain is also salvific: It is perhaps our only means of intersecting our life experience with that of Christ. I will never be able to multiply loaves and fishes, but I can certainly understand how it feels to hurt.

Holy Week is coming up next week, a week wherein we remember Jesus’ suffering and his triumph over death. It seems an opportune time to reflect on the pain in our lives. We all experience pain, physical, mental or spiritual. But what we do with that pain matters. Non-Catholics tease Catholics over the use of the phrase, “Give it up to God.” We use it a lot, for everything from small deprivations to devastating losses. But what that phrase means is this: With this experience, I am touching, in the tiniest way, the way of the cross and the way of Christ. This provides an opportunity for something special — to choose Jesus’ response of understanding, acceptance and sanctification or to allow myself to be diminished.

The way of pain is not the easy way. It is not something to strive for. But when it is thrust upon us, as it inevitably is, it is a place of possibility. And in this place, we are at one with God.

 

 

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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