Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7.13-14)
A Lenten Life
As barbarically wrong as it was, where and when it happened seemed ineffably right. Thirty years ago today, Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador celebrated Mass before a meager congregation shoehorned into a tiny hospital chapel. The hospital’s name was La Divina Providencia—“Divine Providence.” At the conclusion of the Eucharist, Father Romero lifted the chalice—with its wine now mystically transubstantiated into Christ’s blood, according to Roman Catholic theology—offering the doxology commonly known as “The Great Amen.” In that moment, an assassin fired his M-16 assault rifle. Father Romero dropped the chalice as his blood spilled on the altar. The Faithful who’d gathered to worship with this great champion of the poor, sick, and alone had been anticipating this grim tragedy for quite a while. So had millions of the Archbishop’s supporters in Latin America and around the world. He expected it and, as was his way, did all he could to prepare his people for the inevitable. But is anyone ever prepared for a thing like this, this savage desecration of two lives—Christ’s and His servant’s?
Archbishop Romero led what can only be described “a Lenten life.” As a young priest of 26, he noted in his diary, “In recent days the Lord has inspired in me a great desire for holiness… I have been thinking of how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God.” His first steps toward this goal drew him into a wilderness of profound contemplation and self-denial. He never left it. More of what pleased him fell away to accommodate more of what pleased God until he identified wholly “with the church incarnated in this people which stands in need of liberation.” “This people” referred to the Salvadorans. For decades, they battled demoralizing poverty and violence perpetuated by corrupt regimes. After a Jesuit colleague was killed in 1977 for teaching self-reliance to the indigent, the Archbishop concluded, “If they have killed him for what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.” Two years later, the Revolutionary Government Junta, an uneasy, leftist military-civilian alliance, seized power and El Salvador erupted into full-blown civil war. Human rights abuses reached unprecedented levels. On March 23, Archbishop Romero preached a sermon insisting it was each Salvadoran soldier’s Christian duty to defy orders to carry out acts of repression and abuse. The next day, he was gone.
The killing of Archbishop Romero became a flashpoint for Christians worldwide—a chastening of Divine Providence that reignited passions for mercy and justice in many who’d grown content with going through the motions. His death amplified his own realization: “If they killed him for what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.” This superseded soft-edged willingness to die for Christ and His message. The Archbishop was ready to die. Sacrificing personal comfort to emulate the poor amounted to a whisper in a cataclysm. He committed himself to being—and being seen—where he was needed, as well as speaking truth to power wherever he was heard. And in the process, he re-taught us one of Christ’s core lessons.
The holier we try to live, the filthier we get, because a life of holiness gravitates toward unwholesome, unsanitary people and places. It doesn’t breeze by dens of degradation to offer a hand out or a boost up. It foregoes reputation and regard to get down in the depths with the needy and oppressed. And it identifies with them so completely, it’s ready to accept a fate as brutal and harrowing as any visited on others who live there. In Matthew 9, Jesus attends a dinner hosted by Matthew, a tax collector and thus, a man roundly despised as a traitor who colludes with Rome. Since Matthew’s unwelcome to join the “right crowd,” he runs with the wrong one, many of whom join him and Christ for dinner. It appalls the righteous set to see Jesus fraternize with such lowlifes. But Jesus silences their gasps with this: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9.12-13) Archbishop Romero, like Jesus and many other exemplars of true holiness, demonstrated the ascent to “be entirely possessed by God” requires a descent that identifies with every level of humanity, good and evil, poor and rich, female and male, gay and straight, and so on. Once we learn to discount appearances and conditions, we’ll discover people standing “in need of liberation” at each step.
Avoiding hurt and hungry people so we can maintain a pristine façade is foolish. Our resolve should be fixed on standing clean and righteous before God. And if we’re courageous enough to weather grime we obtain by offering our lives to the unsightly and unhealthy, we’ll meet our Maker in flawless condition. In The Revelation, John of Patmos is swept into Heaven, where he sees “a great multitude that no one count.” (Revelation 7.9) They sing anthems of praise to God and Christ. An “elder” asks John, “Who are these people in white robes—where did they come from?” When John can’t answer, the elder tells him, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (v14) In other words, they arrived in wretched conditions, soiled and stained by their labors and trials. But they’ve washed their robes in Christ’s blood; they’ve made them white.
The elder continues: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (v16-17) Archbishop Romero is one of “them.” Today, we lift this promise in his honor as a doxology—a Great Amen. And we defy his death by cherishing the Christ he exemplified as the Christ we will follow.
The chapel of La Divina Providencia moments after Archbishop Óscar Romero died at the foot of the cross.
Postscript: I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
Sarah Brightman performs Handel’s magnificent aria. “And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”