Holy Wednesday - 2010
It’s Holy Wednesday, and something crazy is happening down here. I can’t explain it. But time after time, people show up and seem to trip across just the right missionary to engage them. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Today, Bob and I got a slightly late start, held up at work until about 4:30. By the time we arrived at Prince and Mott, Bob was anxious to get started, and headed directly to the corner without me. “Without me” because I felt the need to receive the sacrament of reconciliation myself before trying to talk others into it. So Fr. Michael heard my confession across the street, and then, His mercy implanted in my heart, I hurried over to join my brother, who was alone out there. As I stepped over the curb onto the sidewalk, a middle aged businessman was rushing past Bob, who had just asked him if he was possibly Catholic. The man barked, “Been there, done that!” and pressed on.
Somehow, “my” timing was perfect, and as I stepped off the curb and along the man’s path, I inquired, “What do you mean, ‘been there, done that’?” He was in a hurry, so I just started walking with him. “Forty years ago, I was a good Catholic. Went to Mass every Sunday. Then, one day at Mass, it occurred to me that the whole liturgy thing is completely a human fabrication, made up. And if a fake, well then, so is the Catholic Church. I haven’t been in a church since. So now I have no relationship with organized religion, and I sort of work out things on my own. I have my own relationship with him. I don’t need you people.” “How’s your relationship going?” “Not very good, to be honest. I’m starting to wonder if he even exists… Now, if you don’t mind, I’m in a bit of a hurry. Trying to get back to my hotel to pack my bags and get to the airport.” “Why, are you leaving town?” “Yes, I’m leaving town, hopefully for good. I’m from Canada and just came down to settle some family business.” “What’s your name? Mine’s Steve.” “Mike.” “Mike, what else besides business have you been doing in New York.” “No much. Went to the Met on Sunday.” “Really? What did you see there?” “Not much of interest. Mostly in the European painting section. Saw a painting about something called ‘Emmaus’ that seemed interesting but I couldn’t figure it out.” DING! DING! DING! Bells go off in my head. Ev and I have been developing a tour at the Met on man’s relationship with God (another story), and just two weeks earlier, I had spent the better part of an hour finding, and then studying, this very painting. How Mike stumbled onto it is a mystery.
At that time, it was way, way, way off the beaten track of the Met. With maps, it took me almost 20 minutes just to locate. But more incredibly is what the painting is all about. “Mike, that’s crazy! You were at the Met and somehow found the 17th century masterpiece by an artist called Diego Velazquez, called ‘The Supper at Emmaus.’ I have recently just spent an afternoon studying that painting. Can you give me a moment to tell you what it’s about? It’s kind of related to your issue with the Catholic Church.” By now, Mike had stopped walking. We were standing nose to nose along the old brick wall around Old St. Pat’s, down near Prince and Mulberry. “Try me.” “Well Mike, that painting was painted in the Counter Reformation, and was partly intended to counter Protestant charges that the liturgy of the Mass was a fabrication by deluded human beings.” “Really? Come on.”
I related to Mike the story from Luke’s Gospel of the road to Emmaus, and the supper that followed. Easter Sunday. Two discouraged disciples, thinking they’d found the Messiah and “realizing” too late that he was a fake, and now dead, have thrown in the towel. They’re leaving Jerusalem in despair. A man appears. They don’t recognize him, but he follows along with them, citing passages from the Jewish Torah, our “Old Testament”, and how those passages prophesized the passion of their teacher. Their eyes began to open—lights going off, if you will. Their “hearts burning within them” by the time they reach their destination, they invite the stranger to dine with them. He agrees. And over the meal, as he says the blessing, their eyes are opened, and they see Him. The risen Lord. Overjoyed, they become some of the first evangelists, running all the way back to the Upper Room to announce the Lord’s Resurrection to their brothers. Back on track. Velasquez’s masterpiece depicts the single moment in time when the two disciples suddenly recognize Christ; they are literally jumping for joy, right off the canvas. “Mike, don’t you see! This story from Luke re-tells to the early Church how the first Mass after the Resurrection occurred-- Christ gave it. On the walk was the Liturgy of the Word, the reading of the Old Testament and then the New Testament story that is typologically related. At supper was the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the offering up of the bread and wine, now blessed and transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ! Your disbelief in the Mass and the Church is addressed directly by this gospel passage from Luke, and by Velazquez’s incredible painting of it! As you know, that painting is in a very remote area of the Met. People don’t just stumble across that painting. And for that matter, what led you down this particular street? And how did it so happen that as you were walking down this street, you happened to bump into one of the few people in New York City who could have explained this painting to you, who himself only learned about it two weeks before? What’s going on here?” Silence. A long silence. Mike’s eyes are tearing up.
“Mike, what’s wrong?”…. “I’m dying. I have three forms of cancer.” Dong! Dong! Dong! Red Alert! Red Alert! I look skyward, thinking to myself, “Lord, are you kidding me? Why me? How am I supposed to do this? We might be on the edge of eternity here!” “Mike, do you know what hell is?” “No.” “It’s whatever you make it to be, whatever you want—but forever. So for you, it’s a life without God, for eternity. That’s what you’ve been making for yourself, and now you’re close to getting it.” Gulp. “Mike, there are too many coincidences here. Don’t you see what’s going on. He’s throwing you a life preserver. Grab it! Come back now, there’s still time.” “There’s no time, either now, or later. Hell, I’ve already missed my flight but if I hurry, I can still catch the next one.” I’m on my knees out on Prince and Mulberry. “Mike, please! This is not just you we’re talking about here! I’m involved in this story too! He sent you out here to me! I can’t fail on this one! Mike, please, I’m begging you! Just come into the Church. Even if you don’t receive reconciliation, at least come to pray. He’s trying to speak to you. Open your ears. Open your heart!” We went on like this for another 20 minutes.
Bob was beginning to wonder if I would ever get back to the corner. But I was so blown away by all the crazy coincidences that had happened, I couldn’t let go. Eventually, after nearly an hour had passed, his and my hearts both burning, Mike marched into the Church to pray. What happened next I do not know. He said, “I’m dying.” I pray now, and will do so every day of my life, that he is living in Christ.
March 31, 2010