A title card for an InsightOut blog post by Samuel Ojiefo Ejeregbe

Samuel Ojiefo Ejeregbe was born in Nigeria but spent most of his adulthood in the United Kingdom. He holds a First-Class Honours degree in Law from the University of Buckingham, with legal mini pupillages in London and Internship in New Jersey. U.S.A.. He also attended Allen Hall, Archdiocesan Seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster, London UK, where he was awarded a Diploma in Philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Patrick in Maynooth, Ireland. He was awarded a scholarship from the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Scholarship Board for a master’s degree in law as a specialist in Financial Services Law and graduated with Distinction. He is currently studying for the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree at the Faculty of Theology in the University of St. Michael’s due for graduation in Fall 2021. He loves playing tennis, cooking and theological discourse.

Readying Ourselves for Palm Sunday

Extreme close focus photograph of a palm leaf against a light grey background. The palm fronds reach upwards from the bottom right corner of the image.

The COVID-19 pandemic, without any shred of doubt, made the annual Lenten observances move so fast due to restrictions in public worship, with many following with online liturgy.  Despite a limited number of people—10—allowed to attend public Masses—and with all the restrictions—we have journeyed through Lent with a monastic spirit. Whatever the case, it is certainly a Lent that we will always remember! Perhaps now we can reflect upon all the many and rich symbols that we associate with Holy Week and Easter. So, let us begin by reflecting on the signs of Palm Sunday that would lead us through the Easter Triduum to celebrate the resurrection of our Blessed Lord. 

As a teenager, I always braced myself for Palm Sunday prior to Easter celebrations because of the lengthy readings. I got exhausted standing whilst the Narration of the Arrest, Trial, Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ was read, though moving to hear. I quietly wondered why the long narration when we were marking the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. I felt it should be called Passion Sunday. The drama group of my local parish, St. Patrick’s Sapele, made it even more special as an adult would ride on a donkey with palms, depicting the triumphant entry of Christ.

What I quickly noticed from Palm Sunday was the very fact that the people who applauded Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, shouting “Hosanna” and words of adoration, within a week, would be crying, “Crucify Him.” Previously, our Lord had deliberately avoided popular acclaim, even fled, but this, upon entering Jerusalem, he accepts. Seeing him on a donkey, those around him remembered the words of the Prophet Zechariah, “Exult O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you and riding on a donkey” (Zec 9:9-10).

Pope Benedict XVI explained that the prophecy of Zachariah relates to Jesus: He is a king who destroys the weapons of war, a king of peace and simplicity, a king of the poor and he was clearly not building any revolt against Rome. Riding on the borrowed donkey, Jesus made a humble entry into the city of Jerusalem whilst the crowds surged at him and scattered their garments on the floor and waved branches, a poignant moment that foretells that this triumphant hero will be dealt with like a criminal and killed. Palms do have a symbolic gesture, a sign of victory. On Palm Sunday thankfully with the increased numbers for public worship, hopefully we can be able to go out to meet Jesus, carry the blessed palms, joyfully sing out our hosanna and join in his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

But our joy soon turns to utter sadness as, holding our palms, we hear the narrative of Christ’s passion. We realize, once again, that his triumph, his true victory, will come through the Cross. We know, as Jesus did, how Holy Week will eventually end. We know that joy will turn to sorrow and back to joy. We know that through the sufferings of Christ, followed by his resurrection, good will surely triumph over evil. We know that many today are fatigued and may be going through mental challenges triggered by the continuous lockdown caused by COVID-19 but we are assured that it will not last forever and we shall, God willing, return to normalcy in no distant future and healing to those suffering.

What is customary on Palm Sunday is the opportunity to take our palms home, a subtle reminder of victory, that no matter how long the darkness may last, brightness will come and joy will be overflowing. Let us not forget that it was on the Cross that Christ conquered. So, as we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday, let us keep our eyes on the Cross; Christ is with us always till the end of time.

Palm Sunday is a robust time to reflect on what Jesus has done for us; it is not just some distant story or something remote from us. It is about what God has done for us; it is about our salvation and our life. We are not just passive spectators, or listeners: all that we recall on Palm Sunday (and during Holy Week and Easter of course) is about what Jesus has done for us. This is such a hopeful message as we continue to try and do our best in this strange and difficult situation that we face at the moment in a pandemic.

The opening address on Palm Sunday Mass expresses this very well: “with all faith and devotion, let us commemorate the Lord’s entry into the city for our salvation, following in his footsteps, so that, being made by his grace partakers of the cross, we may have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life.” Amen.

I wish you, your loved ones and families a Blessed Palm Sunday.

I call you blessed.

Read other InsightOut posts.

Because public masses have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemicDr. Darren Dias, O.P., has shared his homily for Easter.

Dr. Dias teaches in St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, specializing in Trinity, Religious Diversity, and teaching methods. He is currently working of a SSHRC funded project with colleagues Gilles Routhier (Laval) and Michael Attridge (St. Michael’s) entitled: One Canada Two Catholicism: Divergent Evolutions in the Catholic Church in Quebec And Ontario, 1965–1985.”

Seeing the God of Life

Easter Morning: John 20:1-18

Image depicts flowers blooming in full sunlight on the St. Michael's campus.

The resurrection narrative of John’s Gospel account centres around the words “saw/look.” In the lection today we hear multiple instances. Mary Magdalene arrives in the dark, sees the stone removed from the entrance from the tomb and runs. The beloved disciple sees the wrappings in the tomb, but does not enter; he stops at the entrance. Peter goes into the tomb and sees the wrappings and the cloth rolled up. And then the beloved disciple enters the tomb and sees and believes. Mary stands outside the tomb weeping, and looks in and sees two angels there; she turns and sees Jesus but does not recognize him. And what are Jesus words to her?: “Whom are you looking for?” And when Mary realizes that she has encountered the risen Jesus she declares: “I have seen the Lord.”

The contrast of light and darkness, blindness and sight runs throughout John’s Gospel account. Today we discover what, ultimately, John is speaking of: the darkness of Good Friday to the brightness of Easter; from Mary initially arriving at the tomb in the dark, a darkness that left her unable to see, to her encounter with the light of the risen Christ that enables her to declare: “I have seen the Lord.”

Mary’s declaration is not only testimony of the man Jesus being raised from the dead, but a witness to something more. Indeed, the God and Father of the risen Lord is our God and Father, too. A new relationship has been established in the cross and resurrection that we have all been made children of God: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Celebrating Easter during the global COVID-19 pandemic raises many questions for us. Some of us stand at the entrance of the tomb staring in; some are looking at the linens confused; some have witnessed miracles and are still unsure of what’s going on; some have had a profound encounter with the Lord and don’t know which way to run. Each of us is on a unique journey of faith, a journey that is a constant back and forth from the darkness of Good Friday to the light of Easter. We all stand in the empty tomb this morning and ask ourselves: what’s going on? What could this mean?

In the midst of a health crisis that has resulted in suffering, illness, anxiety, and death, a situation that has affected every aspect of our daily lives —even our ability to celebrate Easter as we normally do—it may seem difficult to find God. But our narrative today reminds us that we are often unaware that what we are looking for in right in front of us. Like Mary who is looking for the dead body of Jesus when she is staring right at it—fully alive. The resurrection surely teaches us that ours is a God of surprises. None of Jesus’ followers ever expected him to be crucified, and even less could they imagine a resurrection. The God of life is often revealed in the places and spaces beyond any expectation or imaginings.

Today we stand at the entry of the empty tomb, the linens are wrapped up, and we don’t quite know what to make of things. All the resurrection accounts we read this Easter season are the stories of coming to see with the eyes of faith, whether Doubting Thomas next week or the Emmaus narrative the week after.

This morning the reality of the empty tomb confronts us. The experience of the risen Lord and the reality of COVID-19 empower us to see the world and our own lives like never before; to declare: I have seen the Lord.

Fr. Morgan Rice is the pastor of St. Basil’s Church, the college parish. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Theology, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2009. Fr. Morgan arrived at St. Basils after serving as Associate Pastor at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Rochester, New York, for eight years. Born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, Fr. Morgan studied mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia and later worked for six years in the engineering field in Houston, Texas.

Vulnerability and Life

Image depicts Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples, a painting by Jacopo Tintoretto circa 1547
Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1547

Last Sunday, the first segment of CBC’s The Sunday Edition featured Yale University historian and professor emeritus Frank Snowden, who spoke on how pandemic diseases have shaped human history by exposing and taking advantage of weaknesses, or vulnerabilities, in human society. He said that COVID-19, like other pandemic diseases, “is showing us what our deepest vulnerabilities are in the world that we’ve made.” Capitalizing on those vulnerabilities, the disease is altering life and relationships across the globe.

Vulnerability can be viewed in different ways. If seen as opening us to hurt and loss, we have good reason to avoid it. However, vulnerability, especially in the context of a safe environment with people we trust, can open us to some profound experiences and relationships.

The Triduum that begins tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and ends with the Easter Vigil invites disciples of Jesus to consider vulnerability as a necessary disposition that leads to life in the fullest. Three months ago, I would never have imagined that I would be celebrating tonight’s Mass in an empty church without a congregation, without music, and without the washing of feet, one of the most moving aspects of the liturgy. Over the years, I have come to realize that asking individuals to have their feet washed is asking them to be vulnerable—to bare their feet, thus exposing any imperfections, and allow me to touch and wash their feet as I humbly kneel before them. However, taking that risk opens them and me to a powerful experience.

Jesus insisted he wash the feet of his disciples otherwise they would have no inheritance with him (John 13.8). They were to do likewise. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13.14). This lesson foreshadowed Jesus’ ultimate act of love and vulnerability as he submitted to the Cross, which led to the new life of the Resurrection.

COVID-19 has altered life as we know it and likely will continue to do so for some time. While it is showing us vulnerabilities that have opened us to great losses and pain, how might we use vulnerability differently? Jesus shows us the way and that is through relationships—by choosing to be vulnerable with each other, offering our lives in service and love, washing each other’s feet so that all might experience greater life.

Read other InsightOut posts.

A close image of several blooming lilies.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, Sit here while I go over there and pray. He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me. And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want. Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Again he went away for the second time and prayed, My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done. Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.

Matthew 26.36-46

The isolation of the Garden of Gethsemane takes on new meaning for many of us in this unprecedented experience of the season of Lent. As we move toward the Triduum, the pinnacle of the Church year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting physical distancing which has closed churches to the public has forced all of us to rethink how we worship, as well as to remember why we do.

Normally at this time, our campus would be alive with students handing in papers, doing last-minute check-ins with professors, returning library books, and preparing for exams. They would also be visiting St. Basil’s, our beautiful collegiate church, attending one of the two daily masses, receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, and preparing to observe the passion, death and resurrection. There would be a sense of completion to the students’ year, as there would be for faculty and support staff. An academic year would be drawing to a close, just as Easter was about to herald new life.

In our current reality, however, norms have disappeared, which poses multiple challenges. But St. Michael’s is a collection of communities, including a community of faith, and so we thought we’d share a few thoughts on how to support each other as we prepare to say, once again, “He is risen!”

St. Michael’s alumni members have a long tradition of a Lenten retreat. When they were unable to meet together, Dr. Colleen Shantz, who was to lead the retreat with Dr. Darren Dias, O.P, created a virtual retreat, which you can find here. Thanks to both professors for their efforts.

Dr. Dias, who teaches Trinity in the Faculty of Theology, reminds us there are many ways to mark this holiest of seasons, even if we are not able to access our normal traditions.

For example, “people could do a solitary stations of the cross by walking outside and stopping to say a station prayer 14 times,” Fr. Dias suggests. “This would get people outside and attentive to the season.”

As well, “families could read and meditate upon the readings of the day. We can promote the domestic church in this way,” he adds. He also suggests calling an elderly or isolated person to pray with them over the phone, a very powerful reminder of the injunction of when two or more are gathered.

If you watch our website in the coming days, you’ll see homilies from Fr. Darren posted for both Palm Sunday and Easter, and Fr. Morgan Rice, CSB, will contribute the Holy Thursday post to InsightOut, our COVID-19-related blog, on Holy Thursday.

St. Basil’s links to some useful supports for prayer during Lent, and we applaud their efforts to help people in prayer at this unusual time. So, too, does the Archdiocese of Toronto, and we are grateful.

One of the nicest links we’ve seen is this one, which offers a heartfelt alternative to the usual Palm Sunday traditions.

While we may not be physically together on this Lenten journey, we are very much together in spirit, and we look forward to the day when we can gather together and say, “He is risen. Alleluia!”