Holy Week and a Cloud of Witnesses

Holy Thursday

Liturgical Year: Lent

I celebrated Holy Thursday Mass at Okusijoni, where most of the Catholics are Acholi. In spite of its proximity to the Nile, the area is very dry, parched and uninviting. Standing in stark contrast to the barren landscape was the small army of children who welcomed me as I drove up to the chapel.

Juma Santo, the catechist, and I discussed the liturgy, and then he departed to change clothes, since he had been planting maize on my arrival. I was left in the thatched chapel with probably fifty grinning, wide-eyed four- to six-year-olds seated on the log pews. One of the children in the front row, a girl missing her two front teeth, started singing, and instantly the chapel was transformed into a concert hall, filled with children warbling like birds at dawn. They sang everything they knew. And then sang it again. They couldn't understand a word of English but were watching my face to determine if I was enjoying their songs. I thanked them in Acholi, which made them happy. Then I pulled out my puppet Scovia, and she thanked them in Acholi. They went nuts. 

At one point in the liturgy, I knelt on the dirt floor of the chapel and washed the feet of several elderly people, including a widow of seventy, Lillian Okaya. In the settlements, shoes are rare, and socks nonexistent. The feet of those poor people who work their meager plots of land are, like their hands, worn, leathery, and dirty. After I finished washing the twelve selected for the occasion, Lillian washed my smooth and absurdly clean feet. I looked down at her; over my years here, she has come to consider me as her son. She raised and lost six children, three by disease and three in the Sudan civil war, along with her husband. It was a humbling moment.

For me, Jesus' act of carefully washing the feet of his disciples, as a slave would wash the feet of his owner, contains the biggest mystery of all. I know that I circle Christ's love in this ritual, eventually submitting to the centripetal force of that love. I understand that love, but I don't understand it. I get it, but I don't get it. As I washed the feet of the Okusijoni people and they mine, I looked into their faces of faith. They get it.

At the end of the Mass, I asked Susan, one of the women leaders in the chapel, to offer a closing prayer. She is twenty-five, the mother of four, and possesses a smile that could light up the darkest night. She prayed, her eyes closed, holding her six-month-old baby in her arms, the child's head resting tranquilly on Susan's shoulder. She rocked slightly as she prayed. The chapel was hushed; even the noises of the bush seemed muted. Juma told me after Mass that she prayed for a deeper understanding of the humility of God. And she prayed for me, that I would be protected from all dangers, from discouragement, and from sickness, and that I would know the gratitude of the people of Okusijoni for sharing my faith with them. Now isn't that the ironic clincher? Me sharing my faith with them? Isn't it they who are sharing their faith with me?

from They Come Back Singing: Finding God with the Refugees by Gary Smith, S.J.