Holy Week offers Christians a lot to think about. Through fasting, prayer, and long Scripture readings Christians are called to consider such weighty topics such as sin, suffering, and self-sacrificial love. I was, therefore, surprised by a particular prayer I heard on Good Friday. My mind is usually overwhelmed that day with the contemplation of the mere fact God died. My mind’s struggle to reach that fact was abruptly interrupted when I heard my priest pray,
Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified; Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before thee for all estates of men in thy holy Church, that every member of the same, in his vocation and ministry, may truly and godly serve thee; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is one of three prayers that is specially appointed for Good Friday. That means it is one of the few prayers we hear only on Good Friday. I hear it every year on this day. But for some reason its strangeness had not struck me until this time I heard it.
It was strange to me because I couldn’t quite figure out how this prayer fit with the events of Good Friday. Praying for our individual vocations and ministries seems great, but why do we find it appropriate to specifically pray for these things on the day of our Lord’s death? I continued to think about it throughout the rest of the day and I eventually realized there is no more appropriate day to pray such a prayer. Allow me to explain my reasoning using the 1993 film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is a sort of twist on the parable of the Prodigal Son. It examines what would happen if the faithful son became restless and wanted to leave his home. It tells the story of Gilbert Grape, a young man who must remain at home in his dead end town to take care of his family. He has a morbidly obese and depressed mother who refuses to leave the house, a mentally disabled little brother who is always getting into trouble, and two sisters who as hard as they try are unable to take care of the troubled family. He also has an older brother who ran away years ago to live his own life and whom we never meet. Gilbert not only financially supports the family with a job at a failing family grocer, but also has to look after his mentally handicapped brother all day and be home in order to take care of his mother every night. There is a lot in the movie to talk about (such as the symbolic uses of water, fire, and food) but I will focus on one aspect I thought was relevant to my vocation/Good Friday thoughts. And that is the tension one feels between staying put and moving on.
At the beginning of the movie, we see Gilbert and his little brother, Arnie, watching a caravan of campers drive through town on their way to a more exciting destination. This is an annual ritual the brothers have taken part in for years. Gilbert tells us how he feels about the travelers he witnesses every year:
Watching the campers is our yearly ritual. They’re doing the right thing just passing through.
Gilbert feels trapped in his home town. This place means nothing but loss and suffering to him. But he stays because he feels obliged to take care of his family. Gilbert wishes he could hop in one of those cars, drive away, and never come back. However, we meet one girl who doesn’t just pass through. Her name is Becky and she and her grandmother get stuck in the town when their car breaks down. They must remain there until they can fix it.
Gilbert falls in love with Becky, and his feelings for her makes him question his dedication to his family, and causes him to think about what his life would be like if he just left for a new place. At one point Gilbert gets so fed up he does drive out of town abandoning his little brother and his fragile mother. But he can’t leave Becky the girl he has fallen in love with. So he goes to find her. When he does, he sees her taking care of his little brother who has also run away from home. At that point he goes back home falls at his mother’s feet and promises never to disappear again.
Gilbert realizes that his love for his hurting family requires suffering on his part. He must suffer the loss of the dreams he has to move on. He might even have to suffer the loss of the girl he loves. But his calling is to love the people who need him most. And that requires him to stay put.
What does any of this have to do with Jesus’ death on the cross? Well Jesus too was called to suffer pain and loss for the love of those who needed him most. But the most striking parallel I saw was in the prayer Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion. St. John gives us the remarkable prayer in chapter seventeen of his Gospel. While Christ is in agony in the garden, Jesus faithfully resolves to do his Father’s will and consecrates himself as the perfect sacrifice. Like the prayer I heard on Good Friday, I was surprised by some of the things Jesus asked for the night before he died. He prays,
And now I come to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves…I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world…As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. (St. John 17:13, 15-16, 18)
Jesus’ work on earth is coming to an end. He must move on to the Father. But his disciples still have work to do. And that work requires them to stay put. It requires them to remain in a place where they are hated (St. John 17:14). Jesus has suffered in the world for the love of his own. Now his followers are called to suffer for love as well.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? showed me there is quite a difference between moving on and passing through. Jesus moved on to the Father when his work was completed. But he was not just passing through on earth. He loved and suffered and sacrificed while he was here because he loved those who were sick, suffering, and dying. In the movie, Becky also moves on from the town once her car is fixed, but she was never just passing through. She loved and took care of Gilbert and his family in the little ways she was able to while she was there. And in doing so she in many ways saved Gilbert’s life. And she taught him that he must never see any place or any person as something just to pass by.
Sometimes Christians are called to stay put. Sometimes we are called to move on. But Christians are never called to pass by. Every place we find ourselves and every person we meet requires our love, our care, and often our sacrifice. I am thinking about this a lot as I prepare to graduate. I have spent four years at the University of Virginia. It is about that time to move on. But if I were to talk to any first years, I would tell them that while that day to move on will undoubtedly come, they must never just pass through their time here. They have a calling now to love as Christ loved when he was on earth. And as I go to a new place I will carry that same lesson. Even though St. Peter tells us that Christians are “strangers” and “pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:11), we must never think that we are passerby. We are to love, work, and suffer here until we enter our home that Christ prepares for us.
So on the day we commemorate Jesus leaving this world, we remember that we are still in it. And, therefore, the Church teaches us to pray that we may faithfully serve our Lord in whatever way he calls us. Christ died when the Jewish people were celebrating the feast of the Passover. This was the day in which God “passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt” (Exodus 12:27). The great irony of our Lord dying on this day, is that God again delivers his people, this time from a much stronger oppressor. But Christ does anything but “pass over” us. He comes to us. He enters our world. He enters our flesh. He enters our death. He does all this so that we can enter God’s life. Christ wasn’t a passerby. I shouldn’t be one either.