It is time that I made a confession to you all: namely, that I have almost never taken a bus in the city of Philadelphia. I would like to explain this pattern of avoidance on a phobia of large, long, loud vehicles, but I cannot. It is not because I decry mass transit – because I feel perfectly happy to travel on the Broad Street subway line or the High Speed line to New Jersey. It is true that I have always felt more comfortable on rail-bound mass transit, for its carefully illustrated maps and certain stops, and the assurance that once on rails, you cannot do very much to get lost. Buses, I have suspected, could leave me almost anywhere, without the benefit of being able to simply cross over to the other side of the tracks and go back the other way, as you can on a subway or a train.
But the darker truth is even worse than this assessment. For, over time, in a city whose mass transit system consists mostly of buses, I have begun to see myself as someone who simply does not take buses. I notice people standing and waiting at the bus shelters and I think them quaint. I hear people tell me of their arrival by bus from what I think of as distant neighborhoods, and I think them adventurous. I am led to believe that many schoolchildren in this city make their way to and from their daily schooling on city buses at the city’s expense, and I find this extraordinary.
To be honest with you I must confess to a certain snobbery that I have been heretofore unwilling to reveal to you, when it comes to buses. They are all fine and well for those who can bear to wait for them, for the adventurous, and for school children, and even for the elderly, to whom, I am told, they cost practically nothing to ride. But I am someone who simply does not ride buses, not that there is anything wrong with it.
Bus routes have come to mind, however, over these past weeks as I have walked with a good number of you the Way of the Cross – or as we used to say more frequently, the Stations of the Cross – each Friday during Lent. Our little stations – the small plaques you see affixed to the walls with Roman numerals over them – are quite extraordinary. They are far too small for this building; I think they are even smaller than the size of a bus-stop sign on the street, but close enough to make me think of those signs. They are hand painted enamel from Limoges, a city quite famous for the art form. They are not ancient, I think. If you were to go take a close look at them, you would see that they are quite brightly colored, with lots of iridescent greens and blues and gold accents, although from where you sit they probably appear quite dark and feature-less. They are full of detail: in the sixth station the cloth with which Veronica has wiped Jesus’ face bears the mirror image of his visage, Turin-like. By all means, do stop and have a closer look at them after Mass today.
There are fourteen Stations – following the pattern established by the Franciscans in the Holy Land in the 14th century. These are like fourteen stops on a bus route through the church. For most of the year the bus does not even run. But during these weeks of Lent it has been running quite regularly, leaving at 5:45 or so every Friday and arriving at the foot of the rood – the great cross that hangs above us all - about 45 minutes later.
This bus follows the route of Jesus’ Passion, which we have just sung. It actually bypasses most of the courtroom drama, and instead begins only when it is absolutely beyond question that Jesus will be making his way to the Cross.
The bus stops several times to pick people up. Simon of Cyrene gets on and finds himself carrying Jesus’ Cross. The women of Jerusalem – some of them at least – climb on board, while others wave and weep from the side of the road.
Mary, Jesus’ mother, must be on board, for she is to be found with Jesus at several of the stops. But she cannot get too close because he is surrounded, of course, by his Roman guards, the centurion, who one expects ride for free. No doubt the two thieves who will be crucified with Jesus are on there too.
Lurking in the back of the bus may be Peter, certainly John is there, but we cannot be sure how many of Jesus’ other disciples.
And the question that every Palm Sunday poses to everyone who listens to the Passion, who sees this bus coming, watches it begin to pass by, is this: Will you and I get on this bus?
Jesus told his friends that if they really wanted to be his disciples they would have to take up their cross and follow him. The may not have been absolutely certain what he meant by that, but we have the benefit of better vision. We know that it means we have to get on the bus that goes to Calvary with him. Which is to say that to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a hard path, a path that will make demands of you and of me. It is a path that does not avoid pain, indignity, embarrassment, or failure, because these are unavoidable realities in any life.
It is a path in which justice seems to be perverted from the outset, but which will, eventually set the only true judge on his bench.
It is a path where stumbling and falling, will happen not once or twice, but over and over again.
Strangers will be pressed into work they did not ask for and are not ready for on this path.
Women provide a powerful, if almost silent witness to faith along this path, where men are noticeably absent.
And a bus runs along this path, centuries after Jesus’ blood, sweat and tears were spilled along it, inviting us to take up our cross and follow.
But the truth is that I am not the only one who has begun to see himself as someone who does not ride buses. This bus to Calvary has fewer and fewer riders every year it seems, even among those of us who are perfectly happy to watch it go by. It would be too easy to attribute this declining ridership to a phobia of some sort, or to uncertainty about where the route goes, what the fare is, how many stops there are, etc. Oh, there might be a certain snobbery at work – but this particular bus is really quite nice to ride in, even if the seats are hard (at least we now have brand new kneelers).
And it is not a fear of getting lost that prevents people from riding this bus, because the truth is that we all know exactly where it goes: to the bloody scene of death that marks a turning point for humanity and in our lives, when we confront not only the cruelty of humanity and our own complicity in it, but also the power of darkness, the inevitability of death, and our own convictions about God’s ability and willingness to do something about any of it.
Is this a bus we want to be on?
The last few stops do not look much like places we want to be: Jesus is being stripped and nailed to the Cross at stops 10 and 11. Then at stop 12, he is executed and dies. At the next stop the gruesome scene becomes morose as his body is taken down from the Cross and embraced by his mother. The last stop, 14, is the site of his burial in a borrowed grave.
This is a hard route to follow. The church has followed it over the centuries because it is an honest route that has room for everyone, no matter how dismal his or her own condition, no matter how tragic your own story. There is room on the bus for failures, and stumblers, the unprepared, the depressed, for those whose lament for the dead has not ended. There is space for every kind of suffering and injustice and indignity.
There is room on the bus for you and for me.
And, of course, the bus has a secret that is not very well hidden. For it seems to be on an endless loop of sadness, returning again to the same awful stops, the same scenes of misfortune and unhappiness, of despair and hopelessness. The last stop, after all, is a grave. But it is that grave which hides the secret: that things do not end here in this vale of tears at Calvary, and no one would ever choose to ride this bus if this was where it really ended.
But that secret is obscured to the proud, the overly self-confident, the snobbish, those who put their trust in riches, and all those who generally see themselves as the types who simply do not ride buses.
Standing in front of the Cross, beholding its sadness and its frightful power, is never about taking a bus to nowhere, and certainly never about going only so far as this bus seems to go: to the grave. It is about riding into the dark mystery of God’s love for all his children – even and especially the neediest and least promising of us. It is about refusing to get off the bus at the last stop, at this last hour. Or maybe it is more about just falling asleep from exhaustion or guilt or despair as the bus nears its last stop. About not caring if you don’t get off here, and end up riding around another loop…
… but discovering that while you have slept, the route has taken a turn, and there is darkness that looks like it could last for three days or more. But here you are on the bus, tired, half asleep and resigned now to go wherever it will go. And hoping for dawn.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Palm Sunday, 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia