Monday, April 25, 2016

Walking for Mercy, Walking for Justice

Twice, I have had the opportunity to see Glen Hansard in concert.  The first time was a number of years ago at the historic Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee; the second time was last June at the Orpheum Theater in Madison.  His singing has always impressed me for its range and due to the sheer volume and raw emotion that he is able to convey through his voice.  Often, his voice emerges as a faint whisper, but then slowly it increases in dynamic to a startling cry which then rises almost to a heightened scream before fading back as quickly into the silence from which it came.  He carries a powerful voice, which speaks to the most intimate moments of life, and he does so as though he were an old friend.  One song in particular, “Her Mercy,” speaks to that most intimate desire of relationship; the lyrics end with the repeated invitation: And when you’re ready for her mercy, / And you’re worthy, / It will come.
In March of last year Pope Francis made the announcement that 2016 would be known as the Year of Mercy.  He made this announcement without precondition, without limitation; not everyone may be ready, but we are all worthy, and it will come.  The works of mercy, much like the beatitudes, are concrete examples of the gospel carried out.  They can be simple and straightforward—such as feed the hungry, or clothe the naked—but more so than the action, we are called to partake in the relationship of mercy that is not always so straightforward, never simple, but always life changing and life affirming. 

This is the identity of mercy that was demonstrated by Pope Francis in washing the feet on Holy Thursday of those who were incarcerated, of his visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos with Patriarch Bartholomew to call attention to the plight of the refugee, and of opening a Vatican conference challenging the notion that war can ever be considered just.  The difficulty of promoting mercy though, is that for it to come, we must also be willing to participate in the pursuit of justice.  And sometimes, it is through the smallest of actions—such as in a walk—that together we begin down this path of mercy, this walk toward justice.

A few weeks ago, on Good Friday, I had the opportunity to participate in a walking Stations of the Cross in downtown Madison.  The entire route for the walk was roughly a mile long; there were ten stations, each represented by a building or an organization that sought to convey a specific theme or issue calling for our attention and inviting a response.  The walk was sponsored by the Madison Catholic Worker group.  It was the first year that we had organized this event, and we had hoped for a small number to participate.  75 people arrived that evening, gathered together in Cathedral Park near the capital building.  At 4:30PM an opening prayer was read, and the first station—Jesus is Condemned to Death—came to a close.  Stillness pervaded the park. 

Opening prayer at Cathedral Park

From that stillness emerged the single beat of a drum.  And then there were footsteps; slowly at first, as we all began to walk across the concrete steps leading out from the park to the street.  Again a drum beat.  The voices of those walking—whispered, hushed, some harmonized, others quietly humming—Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom, Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.  The drum beat continued, keeping pace between the footsteps.  Each participant carried a simple wooden cross, painted white.  Pause.  Stillness.  Noises of the surrounding traffic; continued footsteps.  Until slowly, we all stopped, standing in front of the Dane County Courthouse.  And then, amplified over the crowd, a reader spoke, “The Second Station: Jesus is Given His Cross.”  And when you’re ready for her mercy, / And you’re worthy, / It will come.

Walking past the state capital; a drum beat keeps pace.

Between the reader and those gathered, we spoke of our immigration system, of families who had been separated, of those locked in detention centers.  Just as the simple wooden crosses had names written on them—from a previous procession at the School of the Americas—we sought to identify each station not with the historical Jesus, but with a Jesus whose presence was still observed in the ongoing suffering of the world today.  Eight other stations followed in a similar pattern: drum beat, footsteps against the pavement, spoken verses, and then silence, proceeded by the next reader.  Each reflection focused on a contemporary issue in which the reality of Jesus’ ministry, the physicality of the Gospels, was demonstrated by a modern day representation, whether through a homeless shelter (#9), the state capital building (#6), the police department (#4), the county jail (#3), or a veterans museum (#8).  The stations sought to encourage our understanding of mercy, and to challenge our association of justice—not a straight and absolute path, but a meandering and often fragmented journey into a greater depth of relationship and a wider sense of community.
The 8th Station - The Wisconsin Veterans Museum

I have now participated in a walking Stations of the Cross four times in the last five years; the previous walks which I attended took place in La Crosse, Wisconsin and were hosted by the Franciscan Spirituality Center.  Up until my introduction to this type of walk I had never felt a deep connection to the standard Stations of the Cross that can be observed in any Catholic parish and remembered each year on Good Friday.  For some reason though, this type of remembrance—physically encountering each station in a substituted form—reminds me that the Gospel is and will continue to remain an active presence in today’s society, and that Jesus’ walk to the cross is a walk that many stumble upon through no choice of their own, as represented through these modern day stations.  The crucifixion made clear the sufferings in the world, but it was the resurrection and Jesus’ encounter with the disciples at a later date which would render His presence to the modern world, incarnate in the stations of today.  Through Jesus’ resurrection we are able to encounter Christ in this modern narrative of the Way of the Cross.  What Easter has brought us is an encounter with mercy.  And when you’re ready for her mercy, / And you’re worthy, / It will come.

***This post was also published on the blog Messy Jesus Business, and in the newspaper for the Place of Grace Catholic Worker in La Crosse.