Each day of the Holy Week is incredibly rich. If we want to understand the core of any ecclesial mission, whatever it may be, it is essential to contemplate the mystery they portray. Spending some time in Bethany, in the Cenacle, on Golgotha or on the shore of Galilee Lake, we realize that the events of Jesus Christ’s life, of the Church’s life, and of our own lives seem to happen simultaneously, and can be easily transposed. There is no doubt that a missionary living today in Salvador da Bahia (Brazil) is at the same time, mysteriously, present in Gethsemane or at Golgotha. This very certitude enlightens and enriches each moment of his life in an unexpected way. Today, six days before Easter, let’s go to Bethany, and visit Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s place.
Bethany, where one stops to share friendship
Jesus is faithful to His friends. And this very faithfulness is a part of His ministry. He brings crowds together. He speaks in full synagogues. But He has only a few true friends. The apostles, first. But also those to whom He has been particularly merciful. Zacchaeus, maybe. Mary of Magdala, surely. Each of these friendships started with a kind of confession (because each of these friendships is based on truth), in successive stages: after a first exchange of looks, Jesus called him by his name. Then he begs forgiveness for his/her sins and Jesus had mercy on him. But such confessions, which are the beginning of a true encounter with Jesus, are only a first step. They are the starting points of spiritual growth. Jesus goes along the way when He is faced with his adversaries. But He stops to sit at the table of His friends. Jesus is not only a confessor, but also a rabbi walking along with the ones He has chosen, and taking His time to sit down with them.
Each of Jesus’ friendships is the starting point of a new encounter, as it is often the case for us. Actually, the circle of our friends is always growing. In Heart’s Home, we often experience this: a child whom we met in the street introduces us to his younger sister, who introduces us to her eldest sister, who introduces us to their mother, who introduces us to a neighbor... We build a kind of network of relationships. Mary must have introduced Jesus to Martha and Lazarus, who were most likely quite impatient to meet the One who had set their sister free. And Jesus must have introduced His disciples to His friends from Bethany. We know that Jesus loved Lazarus and Martha very much, maybe more than they loved the disciples, who were sometimes jealous.
Jesus had a hard apostolic life: the people were crowding around him, he had much to do, and nowhere to lay his head. He was exhausted with performing miracles and constantly struggling. He was often rejected and had to face the ignorance of His disciples. He found the strength to go on in the Heart of His Father and the love of His mother. But the gratitude shown by the ones He saved also comforted Him: they were the living proof of the mercy of the Father that He was revealing in His deeds and through His humble face.
Three years after His baptism by John, Jesus knows that His hour has come. He wants to share His last supper on earth with His disciples. However, He doesn’t forget all those He has loved. So, before His Passover, He visits them, and, discreetly, makes His farewells. He doesn’t want to leave His friends without saying goodbye to them. He wants them to hear His last words, which sum up all His friendship, and throw a new light on it. At the same time, He wants to start a new relationship with each one of them, which He can only hint at. And, in the end, it is in these last encounters with His friends, and in the purified expression of their eyes that Jesus will find the strength to face His passion.
God is so good as to provide each Heart’s Home with friendly families. When the missionaries visit these families, they feel like Jesus in Bethany. These friendships started with an (often tragic) event, which was an opportunity to meet one another, to discuss, to help and help again. They did not grow so easily; there were crises and difficulties, tears and forgiveness. But they also became a great source of joy and renewed peace. The friendship could go on despite the difficulties, provided that the missionaries considered the shouts as calls and the fits of anger as the scars of deep wounds.
After many years, many revolts and forgiveness, many steps back and new starts, the friendship between a Heart’s Home community and these families is so strong that there are continuous comings and goings between the two houses. It is sometimes hard to know if we visit them because we want to remain faithful to them, or to find refuge, to escape from our difficulties and sufferings. It’s hard to know who is helping whom. These families are places where we find strength before a difficult visit to another family, or after facing crises in our communities.
These “Bethany” places are where hope prevails. It is so great to notice how those who accepted the gift of our friendship grew up! They became places where one can be comforted, places where life spreads. Yet, considering these miracles, we still ask these painful questions: “Why are such families so rare in the neighborhood?” “Why did we manage to build a friendship with this very family and not with the others?” “Why was Mary the one to be freed, while so many other women still lead a life of vice?”
Bethany, where mercy brings gratitude
Jesus’ encounter with Mary is so intimate that we could find it astonishing that it happened in public. Comments must have been made and not only by Judas. However, apart from Mary’s attitude, gestures or gaze, something ineffable, that no one can understand is happening. And that is the main thing. No one, indeed, can understand Jesus’ mercy on Mary, and her gratitude towards Him. No one can understand this secret, because Mary only knows the extent of her sins, and also that Jesus knows even more about them. Mary only can feel the joy that Jesus is giving to her, because she was the only one to know how dark her heart was. Mary receives more than forgiveness. She mysteriously lets Jesus love her. So God’s peace, truth and light can dwell in her, like a kind of transfusion of strength to perform her mission. She knows so much about her sins so as to understand that such a gift is totally free. Actually, she considers herself as the most sinful of all those present. The commitment of all the missionaries in Heart’s Home is the answer to a call. Many people who are looking for a job, who love children or are interested in humanitarian works want to join us. We receive more and more applications. But, in the end, none of them will actually join one of our communities. Those who commit themselves are those who, whatever their diplomas and competencies or even their desires, have received Jesus’ glance. “Jesus looked upon him and loved him”. They are those who heard: “Go!” Why these ones? Why not the others? This is the secret of God’s choice. This call heard by the missionaries, just like the merciful look of Jesus upon Mary, their commitment in Heart’s Home, their faithfulness to their mission are like gifts. It is only in praying that we become aware that Jesus loves us freely, because it is only in praying that we discover how sinful we are. “I’m really sick”. And this becomes evident: “I deserve no credit for being a missionary. God chose me. That’s all.” It’s the same for a monk, who suffers from being so sinful, and at the same time marvels at God’s mercy, and says, “I’m really the last of the last to be made for monastic life!” As we discover our neighbors’ lives, their trials and sufferings, we are more profoundly convinced that we do not deserve the blessing of their friendship. God really loves us for free. There is no doubt about that. In Heart’s Home, despite all our times of darkness, weariness, or discouragement, we see every new day as a blessing, a time of wonder. “I’m able to adore! I’m privileged to serve the small and the poor! I discover, in playing with the children and giving them my time for free, that God loves me for free! This mission is too great for me, a poor sinner!”
Bethany, where one loves freely
In Bethany, Jesus knows that His hour is close. And Mary may also feel that something is going to happen to Him. So she cares more about Him, she looks at Him with more love than ever. Each of His words is a treasure for her. She is totally open to His love, just like a chalice. She could get upset or take the floor to defend her Master, but she stays there, sitting at His feet. Behaving in such a way, she is preparing for Jesus’ Passion and death. Yet, she will be moved by the sentence and shattered by the death of her Master. But what would she understand, how would she react to these events if, six days before the Passover, she had not been there with a heart of gratitude, weeping at His feet, pouring perfume on Him? She may have been as distressed as Judas and hanged herself. Every day, the missionaries need to spend some time in Bethany, because they need the friendship of Lazarus, Mary and Martha to go on. If they want their mission to remain a continuous ‘washing of the feet’, they need to remember the mercy of God, who chose them, had mercy on them and sent them. And, above all, they need to stay there for a long time, doing nothing but being close to their Master, so that, in the afternoon, they can remain very close to Jesus crucified and disfigured. If we fail to stop in Bethany, we won’t be able to understand the significance of the Passion. And revolt will take over from adoration, struggle will take over from compassion. If the missionaries did not stop every day in Bethany on their way to Golgotha, their mission would not be theological work any more, and they would soon see it as purely social work, just like those who ignore its ‘vertical’ dimension. It is only in spending a long time contemplating Him, and Him only, that the missionaries will realize that “what they do to the smallest, they do to Him”. Contemplating the face of Jesus in the host helps us to see God’s face behind the face of our friends. This very conviction is the source of great dignity for our mission, which could otherwise be considered as worthless. A time of adoration is a waste of time! And this expensive perfume a waste of money! Why weeping for contrition and gratitude? As if God needed so many tears to save us! Judas is not judging according to love; that is why he will soon deliver up his Master to the executioners. Mary behaves according to other criteria, which Jesus considers as valuable. The missionaries try to live in the same way as Mary of Magdala, that is to say according to faith and love. The time lost in adoration is saved for the Church. The spilled perfume is a balm to heal the broken hearts of the poor. The useless tears are useful to reveal the beauty of every person. Without love, the cross is unbearable. It stands for revolt, crisis, and doesn’t make any sense. The missionaries, whose mission is to stay with innocent crucified people, need to contemplate Love and to listen deeply to the words of mercy of their Master. It is not an additive to their mission; it is a true necessity for them and for all those who come close to Golgotha. If the missionaries forgot to follow Mary’s attitude, deluding themselves on the sense of their mission, or always being in a hurry, they would soon go crazy. Their lives would cease making sense. And the Heart’s Homes would become Gehennas, where many a Judas would be found hanged, because of despair and wrath. Avoiding Bethany is the best way to get lost, along with all those who rely on us. May all compassionate hearts spend quality time in Bethany on their way to the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem. This is the place where they will find the Secret and the Source of their mission.