We walk in silence through the often-deserted streets, accompanied only by the solemn beat of one drum. Our feet fall into rhythm. It feels strange to walk with friends and companions without talking, but soon the silence becomes more comfortable and our moving along feels sacred. Together we form one body.
At the front of the group, two people carry a large wooden cross. When it is my turn to help carry it, I realize how heavy the wood really is, and I am grateful for my gloves protecting me from the cold and the roughness of the wood.
Every year on Good Friday, the Franciscan Spirituality Center, where I work as a spiritual director, hosts Justice and Peace Way of the Cross — a silent, two-mile walk through the heart of our hometown, La Crosse, Wisconsin.
We stop at 10 different spots along the way, led in song and prayer and reflection of modern-day injustices at each location At a Lutheran church where a meal is served weekly to the homeless, we lift up hunger and food insecurity. As we remember how Simon helped Jesus carry his cross, we pray for an end to divisions and hope for oneness. At each place, history and time blur. Jesus’ walk carrying his own cross toward death shares space with those who suffer today and our hope to carry each other in compassion.
For me it is always an experience of Word-made-flesh. The abstractions of Jesus’ own carrying of his cross to his death over 2,000 years ago becomes more real to me as we pray and see the faces of people still suffering today.
Jesus still suffers in his body.
I firmly believe with my whole heart that everyone carries some kind of cross. My own has been a long mental health struggle and coming to peace at my place in the world. As a spiritual director I listen to stories, and I am so conscious that just as each story is sacred, each cross is unique. How do we honor that? We sing, we pray, we walk and we remember. Can I see in you the face of Christ no matter what burden your life has brought you?
Jesus still suffers in his body.
For the past two years, we have honored this tradition in accordance with pandemic restrictions: the first as a group of staff only, walking the stations with a video camera that captured the experience for us to share virtually, and the next as a socially-distant group gathered along the Mississippi River, not walking the stations but united again with the La Crosse community. This year we will sing, pray and walk all together again.
As we envision Friday’s experience, I am reminded of the poignancy of each station. At the first stop, we will pray for nonviolence and migrants. This year we will also remember the wars in the Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and other places around the world. The need for peace seems more vital than ever. We will carry the cross to a free clinic and addiction treatment center where we pray for the millions who fall beyond the embrace of our medical care. We will also hold in our hearts all those who suffer from mental illness and addiction.
Jesus still suffers in his own body.
For me nothing brings Jesus into the present like the last three stations. We will walk to the county jail, and the chaplain will pray for the wholeness and safety of the incarcerated, the guards and all impacted by our justice system. As we stand before the tall walls that separate us from our brothers and sisters in windowless rooms, we will remember how Jesus was nailed to the cross.
Next we will walk to a cannon beside the Mississippi River where a veteran will pray for all veterans, for the wounded, for those who never came home and all their families. We will remember Jesus’ death. To our compassionate God, we will hold up the very real deaths and living sacrifices of so many.
Finally our circle of people of all ages and faiths will stop before the river to sing and celebrate new life, remembering the sacredness of water and all creation. Death does not have the final word. God’s love is bigger than that, and the mighty Mississippi which flows through our town reminds us of our interrelatedness and the importance of caring for our common home.
“Jesus Still Suffers In His Body” reads a simple banner we carry along with the cross, the drumbeat, our songs and our prayers. And we will remember. We will pause. Time will blur. Death will be honored and hope reborn.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Hennessey, FSPA, is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ messy business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry and singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse.