Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One of "Them"--Reflecting on Archbishop Romero

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.”


claire said...

Oh, Tim, thank you for this. I did not know some of the stories you tell about Oscar Romero. I have his book of sermons, and knew little about his life really. You make me realize I must learn more about him.

This is a 'keeper' as far as I am concerned.

A reverent thank you. And Blessings!

Tim said...

Claire, much of this was unknown to me until I started working on the post. The more I learned about Father Romero, the more transfixed I became with his life and its meaning. And though it doesn't minimize the horror of his death, knowing what brought him to his final altar transforms this heinous act of hatred into a testament of glory.

Thank you for your kind words. They bless me greatly.


grant said...

One of the most moving essays on Grace that I've ever read. Thanks!

This removal of all the "lines" we tend to draw around ourselves to separate ourselves from "them" are entirely wiped out in Christ. I know this in my head now (took a while to get there), and it still presents a continual challenge to live to in all times and ways, from the heart.

One thing I've wondered about is the way most Christian missionaries run for cover when it gets too dangerous amongst the people they are ministering to. I'd be no different I'm sure - in fact, I don't even push the envelope enough to leave my comfortable middle-class existance! So, I don't mean this as harsh criticism - just a realization of how great is the challenge and how awesome that some attain to it!

(I also love the irony in Jesus saying that "I'm hanging out here 'cause the sinners need me, not the righteous." This eases the tension inherent in the situation, but of course the self-righteous accuser misses the point that he is the sickest sinner of all. How sad that must have made Jesus as he said that. It also ties in with how he finally "unloads" on them in the "Woe to you, you Hypocrits!" monologue later on. No more trying to be subtle hoping they will see their predicament - it's finally time to lay it on the line. In the video version of Matthew it becomes obvious that after that speech, he won't get out of Jerusalem alive. There I go, on another tangent!)

Thanks again, Tim

Tim said...

Grant, thank you for commenting. It takes a courageous soul to remove his/her filter and see there are no lines, that the richest and cleanest of us is poor and filthy and vice versa. And, like you, I can know this, but doing it is a far different, and more difficult, thing.

Re the missionaries. Our family actually knew a missionary who remained in the Congo during the Mau-Mau uprising. He and his wife sent their children home and stayed behind to serve. They were both killed in a savage machete attack. Years later I spoke with the oldest son and fumbled through my regrets, etc. He kindly accepted them, but also insisted they were unnecessary. "My parents died like they lived," he said.

And yes, it is interesting to watch Christ's patience with classism and prejudice grow more frayed over time. They don't hear Him--even at the top of his lungs in Matthew 23. Not because they can't. Because they won't. (The video was superb, BTW--the actor held a very tight line on righteous outrage and sorrow. You could sense it breaking his heart to have to be so harsh.)

Thank you for your comments--there's so much for us to learn... and do.


PS: Your tangents are always rich--don't hold back!

Missy Francis said...

A beautiful tribute--thank you so much for posting this today.

genevieve said...

I have read about Oscar Romero and now I'll read more about him. This is a man who knew what mercy is.

Last night in bible study we studied Matthew 9. What rings through is the compassion Jesus has for the poor. Verse 36 points this out. This is the way I feel about the LGBT community.

Tim said...

Thanks, Missy. A life of this stature cannot be ignored or, as happened recently with the Texas textbook scandal, totally eliminated by political darkness. (A friend who saw the clip of the school board member suggesting Father Romero be excised from social studies texts because "nobody knows who he is" said, "My God, they're killing him again!"

Genevieve, the minor research that went into this piece only whetted my appetite to know more, too. Father Romero proves we can live with an intensity and compassion comparable to Christ's. In him we see a ferocity of spirit that expressed itself in gentle mercy, as you point out. He would not rest until his people were free of violence, hatred, and abuse. I sense the same sort of ferocity in you and many others who gather here. May we all continue to press for justice and freedom--and inspire one another in the likeness of Christ!

Blessings to both of you,

Christine Claire Reed said...

Tim, I have found you via the wonderful Claire, and I am glad I took the time. Beautiful writing.

Tim said...

Christine, thank you so much--and welcome to Straight-Friendly! I invite you to come back often and join our conversation as you see fit/feel moved. And any friend of Claire's is a friend of ours!