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Holy Week Reflection – 2024

By March 27, 2024No Comments

This Holy Week reflection is written by the Rev. Howie Anderson, member of St. John’s and an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota.

It was my first Easter Vigil as an ordained person. It was an awful night–cold and windy with gusts of rain and sleet blowing around. I was muttering to myself about how difficult this wind and rain would be when we tried to light the bonfire to kindle the Pascal Candle. I had gotten to the church early (The University Episcopal Center on the U of M campus), getting ready for what I believed then, as I do now, is THE primary service of the entire Christian year. I had the wash tub ready to be filled with blazing hot water, which would cool down for the babies who would be baptized. Then, I smelled smoke. I went downstairs and realized that someone was smoking in the men’s room. I went in and flipped on the light. I looked around the bathroom and there, protruding from beneath the stall, was a pair of legs clothed in ragged jeans. I gingerly opened the door of the stall. There, lying curled up around the toilet bowl, was a man. And he was asleep. He smelled, well, like people smell when they haven’t been able to bathe in some time. I reached down and touched his shoulder. He awakened with a start and looked up at me with one eye, blinking and obviously puzzled. The other half of his face was hidden in shadow. He was about my age. He was handsome in an almost boyish way, with straw colored hair and a full, unkempt beard. But what startled me was his eye. It was Paul Newman blue. So strinkingly blue it seemed to give off a light of its own. As he fixed that eye on me it seemed to look right through me as he now seemed, surprisingly, very awake.  

He said, “Oh, Father, sorry. All the shelters were closed, it being Holy Week and all. But it’s cold as hell out there and I was just trying to get out of the cold. Name’s Mike, Father.” 

I gave him my hand and helped to pull him up. As he rose, his full face came into view, and I involuntarily blanched. Half his face gone, mutilated. But this eye too was as blue and penetrating as the first one I saw.  

He saw me staring. “Viet Nam Father. Took incoming mortar fire and one blew up right next to me. Killed the other guys with the shrapnel. Damn near blew my whole face off. I heard the corpsman say ‘this one’s dead, don’t bother.’ But I wasn’t dead Father. God wasn’t going to let me die right there in that muddy hootch in the jungle. I guess I was about dead because the docs said it was like I was raised from the dead.” 

I was still staring and transfixed by his story, told in such a soft and gentle voice. The only thing I could think of to do was to make the sign of the cross on his forehead as he started to walk slowly to the door and say “God bless you brother.”  

“I’ll be going. I know you’ve got a big service tonight so I’ll get out of your way.” He picked up his ratty, dirty duffle bag I hadn’t seen and pushed past me toward the door of the bathroom. I wanted to say something, but I could not speak. What was going through my head were words of welcome. I wanted to tell him “Stay for the Vigil! It’s the first celebration of the Eucharist of Easter! There’ll be baptisms! We’ll get to say Alleluia again! We’re having a big feast after the service. Stay! Please stay!” I wanted to say all these things, but nothing came out.

I followed after him after I shook myself out of the stupor but he was already at the top of the stairs. He turned and said to me. “Happy Easter Father. Don’t worry about me. God always takes care of me. I’ll be alright. Took care of me in Nam when they said I was dead, takes good care of me now. God bless you Father. God bless you.” I turned toward the bathroom to turn off the light. Then still struggling with being tongue-tied, with such strange and powerful emotions, I ran up the stairs and finally, came to myself. I went to the door and ran outside into the wind. The rain had stopped. I looked both ways down the sidewalks, and there was no one there. He was gone. Still, I yelled, “Stay for the Vigil, there will be food afterwards and you can stay the night.” My supervisor, David Selzer, was in the sanctuary where the stairs came up and I asked him, in kind of a panic, “Did you see a guy come up the stairs? Did you see where he went?” David looked at me as if I was crazy and said, “What guy? I was right here and nobody came up the stairs.”  

I collapsed into a chair, and words came into my head… “He showed me his wounds, and assured me that he was, indeed alive. And he said ‘Be not afraid.’” And I had turned him away. I turned him away! 

And three nights later, yes, honestly, three nights, I had a dream. It was Mike, the man in the bathroom.  He was smiling. His face was restored to fullness, boyishly handsome, no scars, and he walked away from me and looked back over his shoulder and smiled, and said “God bless you.” Then he was gone. And when I awakened, and I was no longer afraid.  

No matter how many times you have failed to embrace a risen one, like I did, no matter how many times you have felt that you have fallen short of following the way of love of Jesus, come. Come to Holy Week at St. John’s with an open heart, open mind and open arms….you will never regret it and nothing will ever be the same.