On Palm Sunday 2021, I sank into a pew at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, my heart heavy with grief. The day before, I had had breakfast with a former student, James. He revealed that his father—a successful businessman, evangelical Christian, and well-known philanthropist—had committed suicide in July 2020.
The news of yet another suicide left me feeling despondent. On Palm Sunday, I did not feel God's love. Instead, I was asking God how he could let so many tragedies happen. My thoughts and emotions left me unable to pray. As I struggled to listen attentively to the long Palm Sunday readings of the passion of Jesus, I began to picture the agony in the garden, where Jesus called out to his father to take this suffering from him, if he willed it.
Spurred by Jesus’s anguished petitions, I cried out in my heart, “Why Lord, do you let these things happen? How much more suffering must this world endure? When, Lord, are you coming again?”
And in my heart I heard, “I’m already right here with you.”
I stared at the crucifix—the ultimate sign of love—hanging behind the altar. Then I looked one by one at the stations of the cross. Word and image united to move my heart to remember that Jesus is with us in our pain. He suffered so we can be redeemed.
But somehow that didn’t feel satisfying. I thought, “That’s not good enough!”
Then I heard, “You need to be my hands and my feet to the suffering.”
My heart of stone melted. I realized that I can’t walk into Mass demanding that God fix my problems the way I see fit. I walk into Mass to receive his love, so that I can respond with faith to whatever problems may come my way. Liturgy isn’t a magical rite that gives us godlike power to manipulate the world with a foolproof plan of action. Liturgy is an act of worship that reminds us we are creatures who depend on a loving God. Liturgy speaks to our broken hearts, to our grief, anger, and confusion, and brings us into dialogue with Jesus.
Recently, while teaching Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, I was reminded that because of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, the chasm between heaven and earth has been broken open. The liturgy is a kind of work through which God makes his dwelling in the world. The liturgy is one powerful way to see our earthly dramas and tragedies as part of a larger narrative, one that reminds us God has made a covenant of love with us. Participation in the liturgy can help us heal our wounds.
As Benedict XVI writes, “creation exists to be a place for the covenant that God wants to make with man . . . creation, history and worship are in a relationship of reciprocity.” We live in an earthly reality, but we are also journeying toward our final fulfillment, which has already been inaugurated by the coming of Christ. The liturgy fulfills our desires to experience God here and now, while also preparing us for greater communion with God to come. Worship anticipates the completion of creation.
The liturgy is therefore not an escape from reality, but an anticipation of what we were created to become—and therefore a participation in a deeper reality. Liturgy becomes a symbol of all of life, a life we live, as Benedict said, “already and not yet.”
The liturgy, Benedict XVI writes, represents the drama of God's departure and his return, what he calls “a kind of turning around of exitus and reditus.” Through the liturgy I participated in on Palm Sunday, I was reminded that being near suffering is an invitation to journey in this circle of exitus and reditus. Liturgy is an embodied and mysterious reminder of the covenant of love to which God calls us. When the news cycle and our personal lives are pulling us toward acts of despair, the liturgy can renew our hope in God’s promises. Liturgy can strengthen our love so we can be the hands and feet to wounded friends and neighbors in this wounded nation.
We who are dedicated to a robust civil society must ask ourselves: What response do we have for the many thousands of those who struggling with mental illness and fear during COVID? How we can respond to the tragedy of suicide with hope for those who feel hopeless?
One response: As we continue to address COVID risks and begin to reopen our schools and public institutions, we must do all we can to bring the faithful back to liturgy in person, where anguished hearts can renew their covenant with a God whose promises are already, and also not yet, coming true.
Margarita Mooney is associate professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and founder and executive director of Scala Foundation.
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