A parishioner emailed me last Sunday about why we begin Mass on Palm Sunday with Hosanna in the Highest, the waving of palms and the glorious entry of the King of kings into Jerusalem, then ten minutes later we are plunged into the suffering of the Passion of Christ where the brutality of humanity is laid bare for all to hear? It was an excellent question and made me stop for a while and try to give an honest answer. But I guess it's a very personal one.
In 1993 I led a group of six men and two trucks to a home/hospice run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Annaba, Algeria. Hippone (Hippo) to be even more precise. I actually didn't know that the Home was in the grounds of the Basilica of St Augustine - my Confirmation name. My relationship with St Augustine began when I was 11 years old and the teacher handed us all a book of saints and told us that we could go and play football after we choose our confirmation name. I scanned through 'A'. Andrew, nah, he's the Patron saint of Scotland. Every Tom, Dick and Hamish will pick Andrew. Anthony, nope, thats my middle name. Ah, Augustine! Even sounds a bit exotic. That'll do. Off I went and, if memory serves, I scored a hat-trick that day. My long, deeply spiritual love affair with Augustine began .... and ended, right there. So it really was a bit of a strange moment when the lorries climbed the hill and suddenly, there it was, the Basilica of St Augustine. I always think of that place on Palm Sunday, it looks very like the image in paintings of the entrance to Jerusalem. Palms trees and donkeys on the hillside. Here is the Basilica:
The Home for the elderly and dying was immediately behind the Basilica and shared a courtyard with it:
There were four floors, running water on the first floor only, no lifts and the floors were actually dormitories, no rooms for the old ones. You can imagine how back-breaking the work was for the sisters having to carry buckets of water up and down the stairs all day - and night. We brought pumps and piping so fresh water could be delivered to each floor. As well as all the medicines and zimmer frames and wheel chairs etc ... we had brought the old ones their first ever television set and video player. When we had unloaded the trucks and put everything where the nuns told us to put them - 'No, not there, over there!!' - the nuns asked us to set up the tv and recorder so that we could celebrate by .... watching my ordination! lol. (They had asked me to bring a copy, I wasn't forcing them!) During the 'show', the big bell at the front gate rang out. It was dark and the mother superior asked if I would go with her to the gate. (Algeria was in turmoil at the time. The President had been assassinated the week before, religious houses had been attacked, the local Bishop killed. The day we left, a bomb went off in the airport, killing or maiming nearly a hundred people. So, it was tense to say the least.) When we got to the gate, we saw car lights speeding down the hill away from us. There was a pile of rags on the ground in front of us, and inside the rags was a very frail old woman. I picked her up and carried her back across the courtyard and brought her into the building. Mother explained that families do this all the time. They know that the nuns will take care of these old people better than they can, especially when they become ill, so in a 'judgement of Solomon' type way, they simply abandon them at the gate. One of the younger nuns went up the stairs and changed the sheets on her own mattress for the old lady to sleep on that night. When she was ready she nodded to me to pick up the old lady again and carry her up the stairs. As I carried her - I've carried heavier bags of sugar - I could feel her bones. She was quite emaciated. I felt so sorry for her, abandoned by her family, albeit with good intention, and looking around her in bewilderment. Suddenly, downstairs where the rest of the nuns were watching the video, it had reached the part of the Mass where the Sanctus was being sung. The nuns joined in the singing, "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna to the King of kings ...". It's difficult to explain, but it was a mixture of two profound feelings. Almost unbearable sadness for this woman, this human being, but an overpowering sense of exhilaration, of jubilation, of glory. St Paul says, "I fall on my knees, to the Father of Jesus, the Lord who has shown us the glory of God ..." I got it. It doesn't say, "I knelt down." He 'fell' on his knees, there was no other option. That's what I felt. It was a profound realisation that the glory of God was powerfully present somehow in the suffering of this woman. That moment, that feeling, has never left me and it always comes back to me on Palm Sunday, where, as the parishioner had pointed out, the suffering and glory of God are present, side by side. They are two sides of the same coin. As I wrote to the parishioner, that same feeling came back. Looking around at people - from our community and beyond - suffering almost to the point of despair, yet right there in the middle of it, somehow, is Hosanna, and everything it means. So do not be frightened of the suffering you may be experiencing right now. Embrace it if you can. Right there in the middle of it, it is possible to find the resurrection and the glory of God. Perhaps it was what Jesus was trying to teach us when he said, "Blessed are YOU who mourn, who weep, who suffer poverty, abuse, hunger ... Yours is the kingdom of God." It also struck me that a few years ago, the people of OLOF raised CHF55,000 to renovate the dormitories in the Home in Hippo and change them into single rooms where these old people could at least have the dignity of privacy, even if it was only to die with their families around them in their own room. Just to give you a flavour of what your generosity did, who it went to, this is Soeur Amie:
Soeur Amie had worked in the kitchen in the Home for over fifty years, kneading dough to make bread each day for the old people. Her feet were deformed. I remember asking her shouldn't she start using her hands then. She laughed gloriously. We brought her specially made sandals to soothe her feet. And an industrial mixer so she didn't have to knead dough anymore. She was the happiest human being I ever met. Here she is again with a Moslem family whose mother had died exactly one month before in the Home. (Moslems do a similar thing to our 'months mind' Mass for our deceased loved ones. They give to the poor. They gave the nuns sacks of couscous, onions, tomatoes and mutton. We had a huge celebration the next day in honour of the woman who had died.) You can see how adored Sr Amie was. That woman who is so joyous and kissing Sr Amie, it was her mother who had just died. And there it is again, suffering and glory, in that kiss.
On my last day there, the sisters asked me to say Mass in the Basilica. The church was filled that Sunday, Christians, Moslems, and nothing at alls. People in wheelchairs, crutches, eye patches (we brought everything they needed to have their cataracts removed). I went to the lectern to read the Gospel and began, "Jesus said, - the kingdom of God is among you. The blind see again ... the lame walk ..." That was as much as I could utter. That St Paul feeling came back again. Suffering and God's glory were right there, side by side, filling the Basilica to its heights. Hosanna in the highest. Can I express my gratitude to the gentleman who asked me the question. It put the whole of Holy Week and everything that is happening around us just now in such a beautiful, spiritual context and connection. Steve Online Prayers: Mappet & Richard Walker have set up a zoom room to which everyone is welcome to log in (contact us for link) for daily prayers* for parishioner, Nessie Tome, who remains in hospital with Coronavirus. Please let us know if there are others you'd like us to keep in our prayers. *at 9am, 3pm and 9pm daily. Mother Teresa Sisters' Donations: the Sisters are immensely grateful to everyone who has left, and to those who continue to leave, much needed donations of food and other household items for distribution to the families they support. Please ring: 021 647 3135 on arrival to let them know you have bags for them to store. Ch de la Foret 2, 1018 Bellevaux. Suggested items: rice, pre-made ravioli, canned beans, canned vegetables, jam, tea, coffee, milk, eggs, pasta, vegetable oil, soap. Bank details for those who would like to make online donations: Missionaries of Charity, IBAN/KONTO number: CH 38 09 00 00 00 174 035 795.