Good Friday 2011 was a day my life significantly changed.
I was a philosophy professor at a Catholic seminary in New York at the time, and like every year for the past almost 20 years, I had planned on “celebrating” Good Friday there at the seminary and taking part in the liturgical activities there. The Liturgy of the Hours sung in Latin was one of those things you could not experience anywhere else and I did not want to miss it.
Then a seminarian friend of mine, who’s now a priest, invited me to a mission that had been going on all week in the city. This was the big day, he told me. They were going to carry a huge cross down 5th Avenue with a bunch of kids, celebrate the Lord’s Passion liturgy at Old St Patrick’s Basilica in Soho, then do a live enactment of the Stations of the Cross in the streets, and finally, drive around in a bus to shelters in New York, at midnight, to bring food, clothing, and toiletries to homeless people living in the city.
You’re nuts — I thought. Great idea, but you’re nuts. I considered it for 2 seconds, thanked him for the invitation, and declined. I already made up my mind what I was going to do that day.
The look in my friend’s eyes said, “Dude, you need to break out of your comfort zone.” Or was that my conscience speaking to me?
“Okay,” he said. “If you change your mind, the bus will be leaving in an hour.”
An hour later, I caught up with him on the bus, just before it pulled away from the seminary. The “unexpected adventure” had begun.
It was still early in the morning when we arrived at our stop at Central Park South and 5th Ave in the City. We unloaded the gargantuan cross, 4 of the boys mounted it on their shoulders, and we were on our way — South — down 5th Avenue. Lots of enthusiasm starting out — everyone wanted a chance to carry it for a while. Before long, we would be trading off every block, out of necessity, because of the weight of the cross bearing down on and pounding into our shoulders.
That wasn’t what knocked me out of my comfort zone.
This was… Along the way, we were supposed to remind people that it was Good Friday (as if the cross they could not help but notice didn’t already speak to that effect) and ask them if they had any prayer intentions.
Normally, in New York City, if you were to see, say, a pink elephant walking down 5th Avenue, you’d say to yourself, “pink elephant… check,” without breaking your stride or spilling your Starbuck late (unless you’re a tourist, of course).
I had been jaded too. I’d done the morning routine in the city every day waking on my way to school. So I was considerably impressed when people reacted to the cross differently than they would to, say, a maniac ripping off his clothes or a pink elephant on a unicycle. They actually paid attention, all of them.
Some honked and waved, lots of people took pictures and selfies with the cross, and a good many would catch a glimpse, do a double take and look away with furrowed brow, fixing their focus down the road, intently away from the cross. Those people did not want you to talk to them, at all.
So when you greeted them, “Good morning 🙂 ! It’s Good Friday! Do you have anything you’d like us to pray for today?” The response was, “No!”
“Are you sure?”
“Anybody you know who needs prayers?”
“Are you at least thankful for that?”
“Nope. Good bye,” Or, “Just leave me alone.”
Those were some of the friendlier conversations I had that day.
Of course, there were plenty of kind exchanges. Many people did take interest, asked for prayers for loved ones, family, health, work, and other particular needs. As we received prayer intentions we nailed them to the cross and by morning’s end, when we recached our final destination, we had a cross covered in small white pieces of paper with prayers written all over it.
It was not uncommon that day for people to call out to you and say something like, “Hey guys, only one man carried that cross, ya know?” We’d grunt back, “WE KNOW!” And they’d typically shout back at us, “And it wasn’t Jesus…” This happened at least 3 times that morning.
I’m normally not an argumentative kind of guy. But finally, I just had to say something. I was carrying a Bible with me and I knew exactly what it said.
“So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha.” (John 19:17)
“You’re cherry picking the Bible!” they told me. “A man named Simon carried the cross for Jesus.”
“I’m not cherry picking, I’m showing you exactly what it says; and you are right, the Bible also says (at one point) Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross for him. So, more than one person carried the cross, and Jesus was one of them…. Anyway, did you know it’s Good Friday? Is there anything you’d like us to pray for?”
“Nope. Everything’s good….”
It was good to have a small taste of what Jesus might have felt the day he carried the cross, fell under its weight, got scoffed at, and ultimately, what we could not experience, died nailed to that cross for our sake.
It was also good bringing joy to some people’s day, people who needed to see that cross, who were inspired by seeing us carrying it, who needed to share their faith with us, and who had things the needed us to pray for.
Arriving exhausted at Old St Patrick’s Basilica brought an end to part one of a very long, but joyful, day. I thought to myself, people need to know about this experience… Someone should be documenting this.
Documenting this is what I’ve done for the past three years. Even after I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, I haven’t missed a mission in New York since that Good Friday when my friend nudged me out of my comfort zone.
If you follow Biltrix, you’ve seen the videos I made, because I’ve shared them here several times. Those videos tell a great part of the story, but you really have to experience it yourself to know what the Holy Week mission is.
And you don’t have to go to New York, because Mission Youth does these missions annually in several cities across the US and around the world: in Canada, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Philippines, to name a few other countries where we do Holy Week missions. Check out their site to see if there’s one in your area.
Also, check out the testimonies from the missionaries themselves, explaining why they keep coming back to do missions in the city every year. The missionary experience of carrying your cross with joy is unforgettable and contagious. Come and see for yourself!