I’ve heard people refer to this season as the Lentiest Lent that ever Lented. At the beginning of the 40 days of Lent, having been through a wringer of a winter, I decided to not take on a huge feat, but rather stick to simple practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Two and a half weeks into Lent, COVID-19 infected our lives and well, out the window went my resolve to do even the simplest practices. I have, however, made my way through Catherine Doherty’s On the Cross of Rejection, which has given me at least something to reflect on and consider during this heck of a Holy Week leading up to Easter.
Doherty looks at rejection from our perspectives, and also from the Cross – at our rejection of Jesus Christ. The less than 100-page prayer book includes meditations and thoughts from the Madonna House foundress, that are both characteristically strongly worded as well as healing, like a balm for a rejected heart.
The very word, rejection, has floated around my mind for the 30-something days since we entered Lent. And it persisted into Holy Week, repeating itself even louder and more prominently.
On Sunday – Palm Sunday, the day when we usually wave palm branches and sing Hosanna in our stuffed church pews – my husband and I watched a live stream Mass being celebrated in our empty church and listened as our dear priests read the story of Christ’s Passion and death.
During the acccount, which I hear multiple times each Holy Week every year, something new dawned on me. As we listened to Matthew’s Gospel, I sat wondering for most of the reading, Who told Matthew? John and Mary were the only ones who followed Jesus to the Cross. It would make sense that one of them would have told Matthew, and the other Apostles, what happened that day.
But Matthew was human and he must have felt… something. And on Palm Sunday as I listened intently in the midst of this most unusual of Lents, I wondered what his very human response might have been after hearing the story that he missed out on. It wasn’t a birthday party or pub night that he missed. It was a man for whom he dropped everything in his life, and followed. And yet, Matthew fell asleep during the agony in the Garden. He was not even present at the moment of Jesus’ death.
Who told Matthew? And how did he feel when he found out?
My sense, whether it’s theologically sound or not, is that Matthew probably felt remorse, guilt, shame at the fact that he abandoned this man – his dear friend – in his hour of great pain. How might Jesus have felt, looking down from the Cross, seeing only Mary and John? It must have been a great comfort to see them, amid the mockers and doubters. But his emotional pain, perhaps greater than the physical, was knowing the faces of the men with whom he spent his last three years, were nowhere to be found.
When I was in youth groups growing up, the leaders forever spoke about how Jesus died for me, individually, personally, etc. That truth, in light of Matthew and the other Apostles’ absences, isn’t comforting. In fact, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. Because if I were around during Jesus’ time, I probably wouldn’t have been there, either. Most of wouldn’t have been there. We’d probably be disgusted by the blood shed and all the pain he suffered through, knowing we reject him even more than the ‘sinners’ who’ve never known him.
During this time of COVID-19, when it feels the whole world is in crisis, I feel the rejection of those who ignore physical distancing measures. I feel the rejection of unanswered phone calls and text messages. I feel the rejection of friends who have long forgotten me, intentionally or not.
But when I think about Matthew’s rejection of Jesus, and the very idea that I likely would have skipped out just like him, I empathize with the rejections of others. How many times have I been the one to leave a text or phone call unanswered? Far more importantly, how often am I the first to reach out?
As we approach Easter and Jesus’ Resurrection, it seems a bit funny to me. Matthew experienced the Resurrection without being present at the Crucifixion. But I’m sure that Matthew felt that Passion and death in his own heart, realizing how he rejected Christ on the Cross. In my feeble attempts this Lent, it seems a bit cowardly that I’ll have the opportunity to celebrate Easter (albeit, from my living room with no one but my husband), even though I didn’t perfectly fast or consistently give and pray. Still, this is the mercy of a God who loves us.
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.