What’s Holy Week without a little irony and ambiguity?

Mary Magdala Community

“What’s Holy Week without a little Irony and Ambiguity?”©

by Rev. Jim Ryan,  jimryan6885@gmail.com

To commemorate the events of Holy Week two things are helpful – even required.  The first is a sense for irony and the second is an appreciation for ambiguity.  How else are we to share the conviction that apparent weakness is actual strength?  And what else convinces us that what we see is not real?

Here we go again, starting with palm-loaded processions on the eponymous Palm Sunday.  (I always wanted to use that word, eponymous, that is.)  So we begin the week that has all the familiarity of a well-loved, binge-watched TV series.  So familiar, in actuality, that it can become a mindless exercise.  You know the drill.  Jesus is the triumphant one loved by the crowd on Sunday, the executed one rejected by the crowd on Friday, and the resurrected one who mystifies the crowd the following Sunday.  And, oh yes, along the way he has his final meal with his friends – or so they thought.

Because we know the story and annually recreate the drill – when we do it in faith – the fact is, irony is required.  To believe that these events are truthful and helpful we must see through their surface in order to recognize the plan that is at work in them.

However, to actually believe in this plan of moving from popularity – to dying – to rising takes this irony to another level of depth.  It is the depth of freedom.  Here I would like to tell you about the relationship between the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph (CSJ) in Cleveland, Ohio and a few of my relatives – two Aunts to be precise.  This story will have a familiar ring, no doubt, to many of us who were associated with religious communities at the time of, and after, the Second Vatican Council.

The CSJ’s run St. Joseph Academy, a secondary education institution for young women, in Rocky River, Ohio.  They also made up most of the faculty at the two Parochial Grade Schools that I and my 6 brothers and sister attended, St. Thomas Aquinas on the east side and St. Ignatius of Antioch on the west side.  We lived on both sides of Cleveland (the south side was that foreign land called Parma) because we were products of a mixed marriage.  My mother was a West Side Irish Catholic and my father was an East Side Irish Catholic.  (Our family was a veritable cauldron for diversity training.)

Anyway, back to the CSJ’s.  In our family every female aunt and cousin, as well as my sister, with the exception of two of the relatives – well, one for sure – graduated from St. Joe’s.  The Sisters were well-loved and very popular.  One of my aunts had her very own doll dressed in the CSJ habit.

Then, of course, Vatican II hit.  The Sisters of St. Joseph, professional women that they were, took a very strong and assertive lead in change in the Cleveland diocese and nationally through an organization named Future Church.  This set off my aunts and many of the Sisters’  Alumnae.  They engaged in a long stretch of disapproval and disagreement with “the nuns.”  What followed is a story very well known by all of us.

I’m trying to make the point that irony has several levels that get us to act on our beliefs.  When “your own kind” turn on you it becomes necessary to go deep into what it is that one believes.  As it turned out the Sisters, who determinedly went to this depth, weathered the storm, probably in easier fashion with the bishops they upset than with some of their own alumnae who became outraged with them.

Yes, irony is required if we are to get to the depth of this pattern of dying and rising with the purpose of ending in freedom.  (My sister wants me to assure you that she dearly loved, and still loves, her Sisters of St. Joseph.)

The second requirement that opens our way to a faithful journey this week is a healthy appreciation for ambiguity.  On the surface it is an ambiguous picture we get of a donkey-riding teacher from the boondocks making a grand entrance into the city of Jerusalem where everyone knows God’s own experts reside.  Who is one to believe?  Who is one to follow?  By celebrating the events of Holy Week at a first level of ambiguity one must clear up who is to be believed, who is to be followed.  Is it the power elite of experts or is it the One who loves regardless the cost?  This was so ambiguous to the first followers of Jesus that they weren’t quite sure – were they still to be Jewish while believing in Jesus?  It took them 40 years following his death and resurrection as well as the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem to resolve that ambiguity.

However, once ambiguity is cleared up and you make the choice to believe Jesus who reveals God to us (“He speaks with authority, not like the scribes” – Matthew 7:29.), then you are faced with a deeper level of ambiguity.  Who is this God anyway?  And, who gets to say who this God is?  Is God the rulemaker, the avenger, the blood-loving “kill my Son if you dare” kind of God?  Or is God the One who first, last, and always loves me, loves you, loves us?

Make no mistake there is real ambiguity at this deeper level.  It is way easier to keep people in line than to celebrate love’s triumph for freedom no matter the cost.

Upon resolving irony and ambiguity we may see Holy Week as that deeper invitation to resolve our issues with God.  And if that’s the case we may also be ready to resolve for ourselves the discomfort of asking, “Is there God at all?”

Resolving such questions is the work of community.  There is no help in attaching ready-made catechism answers to the ironies and ambiguities of our experience.  Does anyone really believe that answers come from church institutions?  What brings about real resolution is real people sharing face-to-face, when events lack clarity and are the source of confusion.  Morality stops being a classroom discussion when my commitment to my spouse becomes a question.  Social/economic justice jumps away from the textbooks when the few greedily hoard resources while the many live paycheck to paycheck.  Sustainable ethics ceases being abstract when Waukesha County, Wisconsin is faced with not having enough water for its residents.

Our local faith communities are made up (or should be) of people who are willing to talk face-to-face, willing to acknowledge our weakness for the sake of discovering our strengths.  And how do you have an actual community conversation that is not direct and connected?  Which brings us back to this week, this Holy Week.  We travel this journey together fully appreciative that God, our loving creator, includes us in the divine sustaining plan and points us to the ever-expanding reaches of the cosmos, to the Christ who is All in All.

Meanwhile, here on earth this week portends deeper faith and fuller trust as we clarify the ironies and settle the ambiguities on our way to Easter.

A Prayer

Here we are at this year’s Holy Week

ready to journey again with Jesus, the teacher and our brother.

It is a journey for freedom – for seeing through the irony of love being killed.

A journey for clarity – for muddling through the ambiguity of coming to peace in God’s presence.

In this week the end is the beginning

– a revelation that we love the gift even as we give it away.

This year’s Holy Week

opens to us the vision that sees through our limitations and hesitations.

The love of Christ is first, last, and always in us and among us.



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