Empathy sometimes shows up in unexpected places.
Every year, my church has an elaborate Tenebrae service on Good Friday. Everyone wears black as we sit in a dark sanctuary lit by torches which are slowly extinguished throughout the evening. Scriptures are read, and songs are sung as we enter into the experience of watching and waiting as Jesus’ friends did on the night of His betrayal.
The evening is interactive. A sponge dipped in vinegar is passed around so we can smell the pungent aroma on our fingertips. A wooden cross is passed through the crowds so its weight can be felt. There also comes a point in the service where we’re all invited forward to write our names on a black board at the back of the stage to be reminded that Christ died for each one of us by name. In the end, the word “Finished” is illuminated.
I love this moment of the service. Taking a pen and writing my name helps make the work of the cross personal. This particular Good Friday I had spent part of the morning at the track training for a 5K. Some of my students saw me there, and one of them, a little first grader, joined me for a lap. It was really sweet. I know I probably smelt bad and looked weird but she didn’t care. She just wanted to be near me. In those moments, I was reminded of how precious and tender and important my day job is. I see my students, but they also see me. So, this year, I wrote “Miss Hill” on the wall. I wanted to remember that the love of God reaches me and my students at work.
It’s also at this moment of the service where I become aware of my dependence. The steps to our stage have no railing so family and friends come with me every year to help me make my assent. This year I walked by a few women on my way up front who had some more severe mobility issues than I have and wouldn’t be making the climb.
It gave me pause.
I wanted so much to bring them both a marker and a piece of paper and say, “Here, write your name. I’ll bring it up there for you.” But, I didn’t have a marker or a piece of paper, so I offered a greeting instead.
Once I had finished on stage and went back to my seat, I began to wonder how I would feel if I was confined to my seat. What was it was like to be one of those women; watching as everyone else came forward? I know too well the pain of exclusion. I am intimately familiar with the sorrow of disability that can exist in the soul, even one that knows the friendship of the God. I considered their loneliness when they went home in the evenings. I wondered about their day to day pain.
Then, with a smile, I marveled at their joy.
Maybe these women who were sitting in their seats were rejoicing. Maybe these women knew deep down better than anyone in the room that Good Friday was the day God became accessible. Maybe they couldn’t climb the steps to our stage tonight, but the good news is that no one has to climb steep temple stairs any more or rely on a priest to make a sacrifice on our behalf. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” the ground shook. The veil was torn in two.
Love came to us.
Photo by Bill Raab. Used with permission.