On January 13, 1982 an airliner crashed into the icy waters of the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. Seventy-nine people were aboard that ill-fated aircraft, and of that number, only five survived. Each of those survivors had something in common: they owed their life to another passenger, a 46-year-old bank examiner named Arland D. Williams Jr.
Workers on the rescue helicopter sent to the crash reported that Williams was one of only a half a dozen survivors clinging to twisted wreckage bobbing in the icy Potomac when they arrived. Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball. Williams repeatedly spurned the safety line and passed it on to the five others floating in the bitterly cold water. One by one they were taken away to safety. By the time the helicopter crew could return for Williams, however, both he and the plane’s tail section had disappeared beneath the icy surface. He had been in the water for twenty-nine minutes with five opportunities to be saved, but each time he deferred to another. His body was later recovered. According to the coroner, Williams was the only passenger to die by drowning; the rest died on impact. He did not so much lose his life as gave it.
When the helicopter pilot was interviewed later he described Williams as a brave and good man. “Imagine,” said the rescue pilot, “he had just survived that horrible plane crash. The river was ice-cold and each minute brought him closer to death. He could have gone on the first trip but he put everyone else ahead of himself.” The man was truly a hero. Later, the bridge the plane hit on its way into the icy water was renamed. Today it is the “Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge.” (Rev. Ronald Botts, http://www.firstchurch.org/sermons/2003/2003070129.htm).
We admire heroic people like Arland Williams. And we wonder if we could act heroically like him when we face some similar situation. Today we begin Holy Week. The Church is telling us the story of the most heroic person in human history. It is the story of Jesus Christ. He is our Savior. He gave his life so that we can live.
Last week I took times to read the Passion reading three times, and each time I read, I experienced differently and reacted to the story in different ways.
A woman used a jar of valuable perfumed oil to anoint Jesus. She must have a great love and respect for Jesus. Her action tells us that Jesus was special to her. She was willing to spend 300 days of wages on him. That is a person’s annual income. Some people were indignant to her action. For them, Jesus was not worth that much. And she was wasting a lot of money. And then there came Judas Iscariot. Jesus was not much of a value to him either. He was willing to hand him over to the authority. He was willing to trade his master for a few silver coins. The other disciples were a little better; they were there to help Jesus to prepare a place for the Passover, but their faith would be shaken. They had different agenda. They were tired. They were not able to be with Jesus at his lowest moment. He requested them to remain with him in prayer, but they were not able to do so. They all fell asleep. Later, Peter openly denied that he knew Jesus. “I do not know this man about whom you are talking.” Then I heard the voice from the crowd, among whom, many had witnessed miracles and received different blessings and healings from Jesus, they all joined together in shouting, “crucify him.” And they did. They crucified him.
Jesus was abandoned. He felt abandoned. He cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” He was abandoned then; and he is still abandoned now. Many people continue abandoning Him. Many people continue rejecting him. Many people continue betraying him. Many people continue denying him. Many people continue not to acknowledge him as their Savior. Many people are still willing to crucify him, not on cross but with their sinful ways of life. There are many books written, many pictures painted, many movies made, many churches built with marble, and colorful glasses to express a theme, a mood, or a presentation of who Jesus was and what his mission was about. We commemorate his death and resurrection each time we gather for the Eucharist. We intensify the meaning of Jesus’ story during this Holy Week which begins with this liturgy. We talk about Jesus and his Passion. We retell his story. We recall his conversations and sayings. We remember what he did, and each event of denial or injury. And we experience the same reality. The apostles, the Jewish leaders, the soldiers, the crowd, all had their roles played in Jesus’ story, but they did not understand who he was for them. They never knew during these events what he was doing for them. They were not in solidarity with Jesus.
We have roles to play in Jesus’ story as well. There is, however, still some sleeping going on within us. There is always the possibility and reality of our denials of his invitations to follow him. We are not quite in solidarity with Jesus either. We can learn from the woman at the beginning of the Gospel story today. She was willing to spend 300 day wages on Jesus. And Jesus acknowledged her love and reaffirmed her action. “She has done a good thing for me. She has done what she could . . . Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” We can do some good thing for Jesus as well. And Jesus will remember everything we can do for him.
I received this message from a parishioner last week:
Fr. John, I have been teaching catechism for many years and this year was quite challenging. I shared this too with the DRE, yet with all the challenges, my class of 15 learned their prayers and the importance of their sacraments and their first communion, soon to happen, April 14 at 5p.m. After teaching for so many years, my children now in college suggested I stop for a bit and take a break; with doubt in my heart I prayed for guidance and soon the answer came. On the last day of CCE class, we had a party and shared pizzas and sweets while I taught the meaning of Holy week. One of my children was absent and I wondered as he is always in class, never missed a day... as the class was coming to an end, he arrived, sweating, tired and out of breath, I asked him what had happened, why was he late, he answered” our car broke down and it is at the gas station, I ran as fast as I could, I can't missed my CCE class and my party and learn about Holy week.” I gave him a slice of pizza and a drink as we had a few left, while he sat and ate , I gave him the lesson about Holy week in less than 5 minutes ... and I continue to hear his words, “ I'm going to miss this class, I'm going to miss learning about God and Jesus.” My prayer was answered. It is amazing the gifts children can leave in our hearts, I'm proud to be part of the CCE program at St. Bart and seeing our parish grow loving our Lord.