Unless a grain of wheat shall fall

On a hazy, hot July morning several years ago, I sat in a comparatively frosty classroom at Boston College, auditing a summer course. Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, was our teacher.

The frail 82-year-old Peruvian priest, who sweated profusely despite the air conditioning (his lungs were stressed by the local air, and he habitually carried an extra shirt in a plastic bag), described his last conversation with his friend Oscar Romero. He had called Romero from an airport.

Gutierrez had only a few minutes before his flight, but he wanted to check in with the embattled archbishop. For several years, Romero had witnessed on behalf of the abused, terrorized Salvadoran poor. And it was now clear that the death squads, backed by the powerful interests they served, no longer wished to endure this meddlesome priest.

Gutierrez told Romero, “Take care of yourself.” There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“If I wanted to take care of myself, I’d have to leave the country,” Romero said.

A couple of weeks later, presiding at evening Mass on March 24, 1980, Romero preached from the text in John about how the grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die if it would ever become more than a grain of wheat. As he finished, a sniper stepped out from behind a pillar and pulled the trigger. The grain of wheat fell to the ground and died.

The thirty-third anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom, March 24, 2013, coincided with Palm Sunday. I am appreciative of this double observance. Deeply appreciative.

You see, we tend to shroud Jesus’ Passion in an incense-scented mist. We cull from the Gospels, from the prophets and the epistles, from later traditions like Veronica and her face wipe and Longinus and his spear, mixing and matching. We construct a Greek play where the chorus and the actors all strut their proper roles and chant their honed responses. We watch from a distance while the blood saves us from our sins. The main characters either mysteriously understand the cosmic transaction, knowing they are on a mission from God, or giddily refuse to grasp the obvious significance, happy to serve their father the Devil.

We easily forget this is also an earthy, brass-tacks narrative, its protagonist a mouthy upstart from the edge of acceptable society, who stood up for inconvenient outsiders and their inconvenient lives. He finally became a traitor to the state and its authorized religion, both of which did business in a corrupt, self-aggrandizing way he loudly rejected. Therefore the state disposed of him alongside the other criminals, who to their executioners were an undifferentiated glob of undesirables, all equally destined for the garbage disposal: thieves, murderers, prophets, messiahs.

We seem to need martyrs like Oscar Romero, who lived a very similar story in our own time, to sharply remind us that as it was for them, so it was for Jesus Christ.

And many of us really don’t like to hear it. We resist. We do not want the Passion narrative to be too readily accessible to us as everyday human beings, as people who have daily opportunities to reject injustice and incur the cost, or accept injustice and swallow our shame.

We know deep down that if this week is more than just a memorial of salvation history, more than just a time to gratefully celebrate what somebody else did, then we are obliged to find some way of embodying the Passion narrative ourselves. And, in so doing, we will incur responsibilities greater than pious acts and ritual observances. We will have to focus on things much bigger than our interior devotion or personal purity. We will have to accept, as both Jesus and Romero did, some way of dying so that others around us might live.

At the Last Supper, Jesus said: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). So much easier to limit ourselves to thanking the first person who showed up with soap and a bucket, isn’t it? I know it is for me.

Oscar Romero, pray for us. Happy Holy Week.