Speaking of Religion: The crucified land of Puerto Rico

For the Christian and Catholic Communities throughout the world, we have just experienced the most sacred days of our entire church year — the Sacred Triduum, or in English: Sacred Three Days. The Triduum starts with Holy or Maundy Thursday, the day we remember Jesus celebrating his last Passover and in which he gave us his everlasting memorial of his body and blood through the earthly substances of bread and wine. This day officially brings the 40 days of our Lenten journey to a close.

On Friday, Good Friday, we recall and relive the passion, crucifixion and violent death of Jesus on the Cross on Calvary. Then passing though the solemn and contemplative hours of Holy Saturday, we embrace the new light of Jesus's Resurrection at the Easter Vigil services late Saturday night and in the wonders of Easter Morning.

The Triduum is a jam packed liturgical roller coaster of celebration and then lament, back to celebration. It starts as we recall the Last Supper in which Jesus reminded us of how we are to treat each other when he took on the role of a servant and washed the feet of his followers. Our joy then plunges into to sorrow and sadness of Jesus' tragic suffering and death, only then to be washed away by the joy of recalling and reliving his glorious Resurrection from the tomb.

This was an especially different Holy Week and Triduum for me. I celebrated the beginning of Holy Week — Palm (or Passion) Sunday — not in the comfort and familiarity of my own faith community, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, but rather on a far off Caribbean island and at a Mass in which I only understood a few occasional words. I was in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico where I was about to end a ten day visit. I was one of the local volunteers of Bennington Habitat for Humanity, joined with the crew from the Career Development Center, that had been lead by local contractor Jim Goodine to the western coast of Puerto Rico to help rebuild houses that were damaged by hurricane Maria.

For me, it was an amazing ten days of hard work, grace-filled interactions with the families whose houses we worked on and a narrow but incredible look at the damage and devastation that this island suffered. There were two video-photographers with us, so that story will be told in different forums and wonderful detail in the community soon. But, the story for me — and the reason that I tie it into this weekly column of Speaking of Religion — is to talk about how those ten days made the end of my Lenten journey and beginning of my Holy Week so special and humbling.

During my time in the mountain town of Las Marias, where we did our work, the devastation was everywhere you looked, from the down power and telephone wires everywhere, to the partially intact houses still covered with the ubiquitous FEMA roof tarps, to the countless houses and structures that were just too damaged and so were abandoned. All I could think of is that this is a country, this is a people who have been crucified! This is a county that has gone through the tragedy and devastation of a Good Friday and, for many, have yet to even get a glimpse of the light of the Resurrection. This is an island that was still in the midst of it's Lenten journey and it's own walk to Calvary. The evidence of the cross was everywhere.

In the early morning hours of the Tuesday of Holy Week, I flew out of the Aguadilla airport and started a 12 hour journey back to the comfort of my stable house, of my warm bed where I did not have to worry about the tarps leaking over my head. I was home by noon, and that night attended the ecumenical Taize Service at Sacred Heart Saint Francis Church where the solemn and contemplative music of the ecumenical Christian community of Taize, France was shared by a gifted choir and orchestra.

At the end of this very prayerful and reflective service (a wonderful way to start one's Holy Week), where the final days and hours of Christ are recalled through very simple words and song, all there are invited to come forward to adore a Byzantine cross, either by a bow, a touch or a kiss, as the choir sings a sullen song of remembrance. Nearly in tears as I made my way to this cross, I just could not get out of my head the sights and emotions of our fellow Americans who still remain crucified on this island really not so far away. I was swept with emotion from the juxtaposition of being just over 24 hours earlier sweating under the hot tropical sun, screwing down new metal roofing, and then in this sacred celebration of Christ crucified. I was feeling the suffering of the crosses of our sisters and brothers is Puerto Rico, but also was knowing that we are waiting in hope and prayer for the Resurrection Day for all.

David M. O'Brien is a retired addiction therapist and mental health administrator. For 15 years he has been an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church and ministers at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in North Bennington.


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