How I almost missed Good Friday

IT MUST HAVE BEEN ABOUT THE TIME THAT I WAS CHOPPING up the melon for my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter's breakfast that the angst set in. Here it was Good Friday, and I hadn't done a single liturgical or sacramental thing during the entire expanse of Lent despite the best of intentions that I had at the beginning of the season. Over the past 10 to 15 years since my own personal conversion experience (your basic "Roman Catholic by culture" to "Roman Catholic by conviction "transformation), doing something in addition to the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist has become an integral part of my spiritual life as a way of identifying with and celebrating my Catholic heritage.

And as I doted on that angelic face that was now making full use of all eight teeth by eagerly consuming the melon, I felt the pangs of guilt and ambivalence. While I know that the same sense of love and commitment that motivates me to be the best father and husband that I can be also inspires me to grow and mature in my teaching and writing ministry, it sometimes seems as if my day-to-day attempts to honor one of these two commitments requires me to sacrifice the other.

One of the most memorable passages in the gospels for me appears in the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark. In this earliest form of a story that is found in all three synoptic gospels—culminating in Jesus'  teaching that his true family consists of those who listen to his word and put them into practice—Mark alone says that Jesus' mother and brothers have come to take him home because they fear he has become insane. This verse has an unmistakable ring of truth for me; often the way we judge how much other people love us is based on what they are willing to do for us that they would not necessarily do for someone else. How would anyone of us be likely to react therefore, to a family member who seemed to really believe that all human beings belong to the same family and who actually lived that way? Would we praise and honor his or her generosity of spirit? Or would we be outraged, confused, perhaps even wondering about this person's sanity?

All women and men of goodwill recognize and in their own ways honor the importance of family. But how many of us really understand—or want to understand—the meaning of that revolutionary teaching that holds that all human beings are brothers and sisters? The uncomfortable fact in the middle of my comfortable life seems to be this: the very central and sacred personal relationships in my life that call me toward greater wholeness, and the urgent call from God to mature in my own spirituality and bring the fruits of that maturity to the greater human community don't always merge as smoothly and as naturally as I would like. At times they do not seem to merge at all.

I know that a good part of the discomfort I feel is grounded in a relentless tendency toward self-centeredness that makes me want to be the choreographer of all the events in my life and to want all roads ultimately to lead to my personal and immediate happiness. But I also am becoming increasingly and uneasily aware that not all of it is grounded there. And as each day (most days? some days?) I enter further into the mystery in which these two dynamics interact, it becomes more apparent to me that I can't control them. Becoming a whole person—incorporating the personal, spiritual, and communal aspects of what that means—is very much of a work in progress for me.

It's a work that ultimately takes me back again to Good Friday and to my daughter. Because as I cleaned up the remains of the melon and exchanged goofy smiles with her, it occurred to me that perhaps in this halting but earnest gift of self, I might just be observing the meaning of this sacred day more fully and actually than I ever have before. Good Friday, when all is said and done, is the celebration of self-sacrifice. It is the proof positive that creation is sustained and nurtured by a God who loves without limit and whom we never honor and praise more fully than when we make the audacious effort to do the seemingly impossible—to love without limits within the limited confines of our lives and our being.

And I take not a little spiritual and emotional comfort from the knowledge, grounded in faith, that by trying to live with the apparent paradoxes of my own life each day, I am in fact participating in the paschal mystery itself. Surely the road home must lie in this direction. Now if only Rand McNally made a map. 

James Philipps is a freelance writer and teacher of theology living in Syosset, New York .

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