The new light rail service in downtown Phoenix has changed the feeling of the downtown, including the immediate neighborhood around our Cathedral. The streets used to be pretty much deserted of pedestrians with only the occasional homeless man walking by. Now the streets are lively and filled with all sorts and conditions of people. It feels much more like a real urban center.
I hadn’t realized until today though how much different it was. It is our custom here at the Cathedral to mark the noon hour of Good Friday by praying the Stations of the Cross out in the courtyard. The stations are arranged around the outside of the pavement labyrinth; we make our way slowly around the perimeter following a deacon carrying a cross while another deacon reads prayers from the outdoor pulpit.
In past years we would do this with very few spectators. The street that the Cathedral courtyard opens up toward is relatively busy, but it’s right at a complicated intersection and in previous years the whole area was torn up and traffic lanes were a bit of puzzle. People trying negotiate the puzzle tended to keep their eyes on the road. And there wasn’t anyone walking by.
This year this was not the case. The people in the cars stopped at the lights and looked at us with a sort of incredulity that wondered why folks would be doing such an odd thing as walking in a small crowd around a courtyard carrying a cross. The young men and the mothers wheeling strollers on their way to and from the light rail station next to our building looked on in amazement. Some of the young men found it funny. A couple made rude noises suggestive of flatulence and then controlling their giggles quickly shot around the corner. Some people just seemed embarrassed for us.
I was thinking about all this as we neared the halfway point of the liturgy. The people were under a tree, making their way through a pair of gates that represent the eighth station. I was watching a passerby try to look at what was happening without appearing to be looking and I found myself remembering the Opening Sentence from Morning Prayer this morning.
“Is it nothing to all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me, whom the Lord has afflicted.” (Lamentations 1:12)
People were just going about their everyday business. They were running to grab a bite to eat. They were taking the babies to the park. They were coming home from classes for lunch. They were heading out early from the office. On Good Friday. And they were just driving by us as we were trying to be present once again at the Cross. Most of them seemed to have no idea what we were doing. They probably didn’t really understand the meaning of the day, or perhaps even realize in the first place that there was anything unusual about this Friday at all.
My mind started to wander. It wandered back to a fall Friday about twelve years when I was living in Western PA. Our youngest daughter had just died after a long and difficult illness. Karen and I were in the back seat of big long black limo that some parishioners had hired for us. We were sitting all by ourselves in the back of this enormous empty space with our daughters ashes on the seat between us. We were exhausted and silent. We just looked out the windows as our little procession drove down to the Cathedral in the center of Pittsburgh where our daughter Jackie was interred.
I remember that day. I guess there’s no way I’ll ever forget it. What I remember most of the drive though was the way everyone else in the world was carrying on as if it was a normal day. They were going about their everyday business. Driving to work. Heading out to the shopping. Making deliveries. They had no idea that our daughter had just died. They had no idea of the grief and the emptiness that was on the other side of the tinted windows of the limo they were passing. It was just a day like any other for them. Just as it should have been I guess.
I remember thinking then that this must be what it is like for everyone when they lose someone they love. Their world is standing still, but the rest of us go on as if nothing has happened. There are these little islands of personal grief adrift in the teeming seas of humanity. And we pretty much always just miss them. We’re too busy doing what needs to be done to see. To stop. To stand in silence. In the old days people used to stop when a funeral procession drove by. People even removed their hats (or so I’m told). That doesn’t happen anymore. Now people zoom by, or hop in line briefly so as to run through a light.
Occasionally, if the procession is slowing them down too much for their need to get things done, they decide to share their frustration by flipping off the hearse. I’ve been flipped off a number of times as I rode at the head of procession. People can no longer imagine the floating islands of grief are passing so close to them I guess.
There at the foot of cross on the labyrinth, the one that marks the tenth station, I noticed a flower. A flower wrapped in a palm leaf. Probably a palm that I had blessed on Sunday as we all gathered in the courtyard to start the Palm Sunday Liturgy.
That little flower, so carefully arranged, had been left at the foot of the cross by some person who must have attended the service. Maybe someone from the Cathedral congregation. Maybe someone from the neighborhood. Maybe someone just passing by. It was obviously an act of prayer by who ever put it there. A secret, private act of prayer.
Someone had had eyes to see. The sign was there at my feet. I had suddenly been given those same eyes I guess. The cross in the yard meant something to someone. And they had marked it in their own way. And that marking reminded me that not all of us are unaware of what is happening, or unable to see the islands of private pain. And that made it better. The fact that someone saw mattered. It didn’t matter that most didn’t. It mattered that someone did.
Maybe that’s how it was in Jerusalem that day back then too. Some people saw. Most didn’t. But the ones who did, saw on behalf of all of us. Maybe it really was only Mary and John at the end. But they saw. And through them, we see too.