Saturday, April 16, 2022

Passion, death and resurrection

I went to morning prayer at the parish today, followed by an all hands scramble to unload the flowers and get them out onto the altar for the decorating team coming later. As I headed out afterwards, my heart lifted at the sight of the trees in bloom, the fallen petals from the cherry tree stirring like confetti from a long past parade on the walk, the sounds of the birds. It was a beautiful morning in Bryn Mawr. The air held that spring warmth, just a hint of March’s cold damp still caught in the corners of the stone walls of the church. And just like that I was transported 35 years into the past.

I walked out of the hospital, perhaps around 8. It was a beautiful morning in Bryn Mawr. The air held that spring warmth, with just enough of March’s cold damp to remind you to be grateful that winter’s rigors were past. The birds sang, the trees were aflower, the daffodils across the way were brilliant. Who knew? I’d spent the night in an empty and dimly lit family lounge on the surgical floor and was blinded by all this light and beauty.

It was Holy Thursday, 35 years ago today. On Sunday I had thought I was prepared to wade into the Paschal mystery. Passion, death, and — without a doubt — resurrection. On Wednesday of Holy Week I would discover how woefully unprepared I was to face the Paschal mystery when it was pulled off the pages of scripture and poured out before me. Take this cup, and drink from it.

Tom was thirty. I had just turned 29. Not much older than my sons are now. We’d been married five years, finished our PhDs, moved, got jobs, bought a house, settled into a parish and a neighborhood. It was a very ordinary life, with grass to mow and walls to paint and futures to dream on. But we didn’t know about the bomb inside Tom’s chest. The ballooning artery that would eventually drive a channel into his heart, torn open as he swam laps in the college pool while I sat through the penultimate faculty meeting of the year. 

The Triduum for me would begin with a ride in a ambulance, everything left behind. I would stand by and watch as they resuscitated Tom in the ER. I would make phone calls. I would see that he was anointed with the holy oils. I would talk to him as they prepared him for surgery, though I do not think he could hear me. And I watched and prayed through the night. At 5 am, the surgeon would concede that the damage was beyond repair. At 7 am I would see him wrapped in white sheets, and make the sign of the cross on his forehead with my tears. And walk out of the hospital a few minutes later into that bruisingly beautiful spring day.

So on that Good Friday morning I picked out a casket, flanked by my shell-shocked in-laws and my distraught parents. On Holy Saturday morning I sat with the associate pastor to pick out readings and insist that Easter notwithstanding, there would be no music. No sung alleluia. No alleluia. It was too fast. Three days was not enough time for me to wrap my head around wrenching grief and recognize within it blazing resurrection. I grasp in some small way why the apostles couldn’t believe the women — it was too much of a shift in too little time. I am yet more floored by Mary Magdalene;s ability to see beyond the passion into the resurrection.

There would be a wake on Easter Sunday, a funeral on Easter Monday. Both achingly perfect spring days. Despite all the time that has passed, or perhaps because of it, I can never fail to see the passion and death swirling through the resurrection. It clouds our vision, tests our faith and stretches out our arms between heaven and earth. Like those perfect spring days, where there is still just enough winter lurking in the air to remind you of things unseen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022


We have been using a different processional cross in Lent. The plain wood cross we will venerate on Good Friday, wrapped in violet tulle. I feel off-balance carrying this cross, it's just a bit top heavy, a bit too weighty for me. Each time I lift it from the stand, I think for a moment that I’ve got this, that it’s not as heavy as I recall. Two steps later, I’m struggling to keep it aloft and steady. Will I make it down the aisle? Up the steps of the altar? It always feels like it’s not quite in my control. 

The regular cross is weighty enough to be a bit of work to carry, but not so much that I can’t smoothly get it under the choir loft and out into the vestibule. It’s always under my control. I’ll be glad of its return come Easter.

The violet has been replaced by a red chiffon drape. As I stand in the back ready to process at the vigil Mass on Palm Sunday, I realize I am veiled. I cannot see clearly, catching glimpses of altar and transept as I move. 

That unwieldy cross, that veil that hides the path from me, remind me of the underlying mystery we gather here to celebrate, that we must die to self to rise with Christ. We must, as the psalmist reminds us, let go our grasp and be still. To give over control and lay down all we have.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

What do you think of our news coverage?

The little box popped up in the lower left of my iPad screen, “What do you think of our news coverage?”

The article was headlined “Name, phone, address…” and described a Ukrainian mother writing her name and phone number on her very young child before they evacuated. Just in case. Just in case they were separated.  Just in case her parents were killed. She would have her identity, know a bit about her parents, just in case.

What do I think of this news coverage? I am mortified by it. I am unable to keep my voice from cracking as I try to talk to my own child, home on a brief visit, standing in the kitchen — an adult. I want to say that I remember the time he went to a protest where they told him to write his name and a contact on his arm in black Sharpie. Just in case. I want to say that if we were fleeing such destruction that I could see myself standing in the kitchen grabbing the Sharpie I keep in the pencil cup on the counter, writing names and phone numbers on my children. Just in case. But now I am weeping openly, and I cannot choke out the words out to explain why. So I flee the room. 

What do I think of this news coverage? I think that I am weeping again as I write this. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022


The reading spoke of a horn full of oil in the hands of a prophet prepared to anoint a king. As I listened I tried to visualize how much oil that might be, were we talking about a few drops or a cupful? What animal gave its horn, what was used for a stopper? There is a time and a place for Ignatian composition of place. This might not have been it. 

That evening I was making dinner, and measured out a quarter cup of oil, a bit more than 50 mL. I set it down on the counter for a moment, and then knocked it over with my hand. Oil was suddenly everywhere. It flowed over the counter top, onto the drawers below. Onto the floor. It was everywhere. I couldn’t believe how such a small amount could spread so far.

At one level, I do understand why oil makes such a mess when it spills. It has a low surface tension (about 30 dynes/cm — and yes, I looked it up, see Albert Halpern, J. Phys. Chem. 1949, 53, 6, 895–897), about half that of water. A teaspoon of oil can spread out to cover about 22 thousand square feet of water. I had spilled ten times that, no wonder it was everywhere in my 200 square foot kitchen.

The messiah, the anointed one. All these years as a chemist, all the psalms I’ve prayed and I’d never really thought, “Why oil?” Oil burns, giving light. It binds, turning flour into bread. It soothes, it’s a balm. It doesn’t evaporate, rather it protects what it covers. It eases friction. Oil is costly. So was the grace that flowed from Calvary. And oil spreads out and out, reminding me that the mercy of God knows no bounds.


Benjamin Franklin famously measured the spread of oil on water in a London pond. And in looking through the literature about surface tension of plant oils discovered that you can extract oil from carrots. And that what you get is comparable to olive oil in many of its physical properties.

Illustration is Raphael’s fresco of the anointing of David by Samuel, part of a series in the loggia of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. I walked through there in June of 2016, but will admit both have been agape at the frescos and not having noticed this one in particular.