Today was Palm Sunday and the commencement of my favorite week of the year: Holy Week. It is a time of deep prayer and reflection for me. And at the Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday night I will be celebrating my twentieth “birthday” as a Catholic.
This morning it was just my two boys and I at the 10:30 Mass. My wife and daughter had attended at 9:00 AM in order to return home and do some baking for a project our daughter needed for a group activity later in the afternoon. After picking up our palm leaves at the entrance we headed inside and wound up sitting in the front pew on the “stage right” side of the sanctuary. Our church seats somewhere between 700-900 (I’ve forgotten the exact number) and today was no exception as it was standing room only.
Today the Gospel reading was from Luke’s Gospel and is a long reading in which the priest says the words attributed to Christ, one reader reads the passages as the narrator, and another reader reads the words said by Peter, or the thieves on either side of Jesus. We, the congregation, recite the passages attributed to the crowd.
We were several minutes into this reading when I found myself thinking about how ready I was for Holy Week. This year we will not travel to visit family and attend Mass at another parish, but will be able to be here at home. I intend to go to Mass for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil on Saturday, and Easter Sunday. I’ve done so just a handful of times in my twenty years as a Catholic, and it is a wonderful manner in which to delve into the events of Christ’s Passion.
Anyhow, so there I was, lost in the reading and in meditation, when the following lines were read:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
As my eyes moved from the missal in my hands from which I was reading to the crucifix above the altar my periphery vision caught what happened next.
Right after Fr. Adam said “…with me in Paradise” the altar boy to his right and about twenty feet in front of us, lost his breakfast, projecting it a good few feet in front of himself and splattering all over the marble tiled floor of the sanctuary. The poor boy stood stunned, as did everyone else, at which time I quickly exited my pew and made my way to the area hidden behind the altar where we keep extra candles, paper towels, a sink, etc. One of the men, Steve, who was serving as an acolyte (assisting the priest during the Mass) met me back there to get a bucket while I gathered paper towels and rags. The other acolyte walked the boy to the back of the church and to the sacristy to sit down and get cleaned up. The boy’s mom met Steve and I behind the altar and asked if she could help. It turned out the boy who got sick belonged to the family my boys and I had been sitting next to in the pew. We thanked her, but suggested she go comfort her poor son who was probably not feeling too good physically, as well as being embarrassed over what just happened.
The whole time the reading continued, and the Mass proceeded while Steve and I knelt down and as quickly and quietly as we could removed the boy’s breakfast from sight. And so it was that I found myself in my khakis, on my knees, wiping up what appeared to be a brown gravy breakfast.
After we finished and my hands were washed I rejoined the boys in the pew. Fr. Adam preached an excellent homily (“The first part of the word mediocrity is “me”) and I was able to once again regain the mindset of having a great kickoff to my Holy Week.
While wiping the floor up I had noticed the back of the shoes and the robe of one of the other altar boys, Matt, who had been standing a few feet in front of the sick boy. The shoes had not escaped unscathed and his once spotlessly white robe would need to be washed after Mass.
A few minutes prior to Holy Communion Matt left the sanctuary to kneel on the front steps of the altar, just a few feet in front of us. I don’t know why I was looking at Matt when it happened. Maybe it was because just a few minutes earlier Fr. Adam had incensed the altar and it still hung heavy in the air. But there I was, kneeling in prayer, looking at Matt…and the poor kid leaned forward and threw up on the second step.
Without saying a word I got up and walked over to Matt who continued to kneel, too stunned to move or go anywhere, and taking him by the shoulders walked the grateful fifth-grader to the rear and out of the church. We had used all of the paper towels in the first go-round, so I grabbed three more rolls and headed back inside, wanting to get it cleaned up before half of the congregation would have to walk by Matt’s breakfast after they received Communion. Once again I knelt down and was able to make quick work of it.
I washed my hands again, and walked to the back of our church to join a line towards Communion. After receiving the Blessed Sacrament I knelt in the pew next to my oldest son and prayed the Anima Christi as I always do.
And then the giggles hit. Hard. The absurdity of it all just struck me all at once and stifling my laughter I physically shook. This caused Nolan to start to laugh. My friend John, who sings in the choir to the left of where I knelt told me later he saw me shaking with laughter and knew that if he was going to be able to finish the song with the rest of the choir he would have to avert his eyes from us. All of the holiness I’d felt in the first half of the Mass was gone as I knelt in prayer after the Mass had ended. Suddenly all I could think of was this scene from the movie Stand By Me:
And of course the more I thought of that scene the more I shook with laughter.
A few friends of mine, and one of the grateful moms, thanked me as I knelt in prayer trying to regain the prayerful place I’d lost during the last twenty-five minutes. I wasn’t upset as I felt terrible for those poor boys.
I have no great lesson or insights from this tale. No meditation on what it means for my Holy Week. It’ll still be a fruitful week to be sure, but after today I’m preparing myself for anything. I also won’t be sitting in the front pew again for a while.