Almost White Garments

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, February 2010
– PDF version –

I relish a moment of quiet in the chapel early on Easter morning. Every year at the Downtown Chapel I sneak downstairs, flick the switch of a single altar light and sit on the sanctuary steps. I relax in this sacred space as I have done in various other places in the 27 years of my priesthood. I savor the prayer and excitement, the longing and grieving, and the memories and peace of the Triduum. Every year the Triduum captures the real life of every parish, and I try to soak up the lingering hope of people who believe in the dying and rising of Christ Jesus.

Last Easter morning I tried to recall the names and faces of our friends who courageously extended their feet to be washed on Holy Thursday. I captured again the longing on those faces that ache for Jesus to truly wash them of suffering, poverty and loss. I remembered the fresh smell of the bleached towels. I heard again the gentle music, the soft singing. I felt again the anxiety of some people worried about publicly exposing their imperfect feet. The naked feet reminded me again of the sinners and outcasts who ache to be called among His followers. These memories help me realize one more time that everyone longs to be cared for and acknowledged as followers of the Christ who still washes us clean.

I remembered the folks who processed down the chapel aisle to kiss the cross on Good Friday. Some people from our hospitality center reverenced the cross for the first time. Other people who live on the margins of society hoped that this gesture could spark healing for them and for the Church. Still others sought out the wood because it has been a deeply significant ritual all the way from their childhood. Last year I sensed my own fear of death as I remembered an elderly woman who hobbled up to the cross. She died just a few short weeks later.

I also held up to the Divine my memories of celebrating the Easter Vigil. I smelled the Chrism now mingled among the bright aroma of the white lilies. I pondered the wax from the peoples’ candles now on the carpeting. I remembered the new fire capturing excitement on the faces of the Elect and the Word of God echoing our ancient history in our small chapel. I remembered the joyful faces of people renewing their baptismal commitments. The deep joy of new life echoed back to me on the quiet step.

My reminiscence ended abruptly last Easter morning with a knock on the chapel door. Julie, a volunteer and parishioner, arrived in the rain with a load of clothing donated from her coworkers. As I opened the door she said that a young man she encountered down the block really needed help. We invited him through the lobby doors. He was in his early twenties and told us he was just passing through town. He stood in front of us wearing jeans, a T-shirt and filthy, wet white socks. He explained that while he had slept in a doorway all of his possessions were stolen, even his shoes. He begged us for at least a pair of socks and any kind of shoes.

Julie and I escorted him into our men’s clothing pantry, a small dark space in our basement. I assisted him in sorting out some options for shoes. Julie ran upstairs to acquire a new pair of white sweat socks. His name was Chris, and the smell of booze covered him as he sat down on a bench to try on his new shoes. We chatted as he peeled off the soaking wet, filthy-grey socks from one foot then the other. His face lit up as he slowly put on his new socks and tried on a couple of pairs of shoes to find the right size. The donated canvas shoes fit him perfectly.

Julie and I engaged Chris in conversation as he relaxed on the bench enjoying the warmth of his new socks and shoes. He was alone, seeking a job, lost in alcohol, running from family issues and not sure he would stay in Portland long. He thanked us over and over again, for the new white socks and the shoes that felt even better than the boots he had been wearing.

As we were leaving the men’s pantry, Chris picked up his old white socks and tossed them to the side of the room into a small waste basket. I saw the gesture in slow motion, this young man tossing the white garments off to the side. I slowed down and took a second look at the socks in the trash can. I turned off the lights to the small windowless room, acknowledged his smile, closed the door and gave thanks for the Easter morning memory.

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