Hosannas from Lockdown


Lamentations are surely in order this Holy Week of the pandemic. The numbers of deaths and infections mount, unemployment increases, and it’s probably too soon to seek hints of good news, inklings of lowered numbers. At a time when no one meets in churches, synagogues or mosques, we turn to the liturgy of the world.

And there, where evidence of suffering and evil is mind-numbing, we also find cause to rejoice. A personal favorite: Tony’s Pizza in San Jose CA, a small shop that delivered a free pizza to anyone over 70. So many supportive donations poured in, Tony was able to add a salad. Hard to imagine how much that could mean to someone hungry, fearful, aching and isolated.

Then the example of Don Giuseppe Berardelli, 72, parish priest in a small village near Milan, Italy. As he lay dying of COVID, his parishioners bought him a respirator.  But he gave it away to a younger patient, also struggling to breathe, whom he didn’t know.  No funerals now in Italy, but when Berardelli’s casket rolled through the village, people applauded from their windows and balconies.*  A different version of a small procession entering Jerusalem many years ago, which Christians commemorate this day.

Another news article by Chuck Barney of the Bay Area News Group tells of Berkeley authors Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who started buying 25 meals a week from local restaurants, delivered to the ER staff at Oakland’s Highland Hospital.  Restaurants needing business are rising to the occasion, and donors have given over $5000 to expand the program.

These three examples are heartening, but a loud chorus of praise ascends from people dutifully sheltering in place, sacrificing fun plans and rewarding activities, confronting loneliness and boredom.  Unaware of all they do, parents and other caretakers of young children confined to small spaces are exercising enormous creativity and restraint. (When this is over, appreciation for teachers should skyrocket, leading to million-dollar salaries for them all.) Staying home and avoiding social contact seems like a small thing, but it may well be like the tiny mustard seed that blossoms into a giant bush, sheltering the birds. If, as medical experts hope, this effort “flattens the curve” and reduces the pressure on hospitals, it will be well worth the exasperation, frustration and anxious question, “How much longer will this last?”

Holy Week 2020 may well mark a time of stunning bravery, astonishing dedication, graced quiet, and a silent celebration unlike any other in history.

*Leonard Pitts column, Miami Herald, 3/26/20

Lent 5

Today’s gospel (John 11:1-45) prompts us to ask where we ourselves are bound and death-like. Have we capitulated to the culture’s definition of us as consumers? Have we bought into the put-downs tossed off by the careless that do unintended harm? Do we resort to old categories (gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, socio-economic level), caging unique human beings? Jesus’ call comes to us all: “Lazarus come forth!” Shed those paralyzed trappings; enter into new and abundant life.

It is marvelous to consider Martha’s role in this miracle. She starts with an understandable complaint: “If you’d come sooner, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Yet she dares to hope for more, just as Mary once told Jesus at Cana, “they have no more wine.” Martha is far more creative than the bystanders, who never dream that this “Johnny-Come-Lately” could defy death and wrench their friend from the tomb.

Approaching his passion, it’s almost as if Jesus needs one slight affirmation. He must wonder whether those who’d been with him so long had the slightest glimmer of understanding. Peter had once professed that Jesus was the Christ, but in the next verse, Jesus is warning him because of his stupidity, “get thee behind me, Satan!” Martha, on the other hand, gives Jesus what he needs: her belief that he is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Encouraged by her trust, Jesus asserts his truest identity: “the resurrection and the life.”


Blindness, Sight and Coronavirus–Lent 4

Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie writes of the man born blind: His first words, ”ego eimi” mean literally, “I am.” But there’s more to this than a simple self-identification. They also place him in line with God’s self-definition in the Hebrew scripture, “I am who am,” and Jesus’ string of identifiers elsewhere in John: I am the bread of life (6:35) and light of the world. This spunky, uneducated man represents us all, made in God’s image. (The Gospel According to John New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 55.)

Furthermore, the formerly blind man models how to trust. He’s so grateful to Jesus he believes him completely, and bows in reverence to him. He may not have read anything, but he stands in sharp contrast to those who may be more educated, but desperately cling to a tired tradition. Their blindness keeps them from seeing how awesomely God works in the present.

We shouldn’t pick on them when we all have our blind spots. This Lent is pervaded by news of the coronavirus, and it’s still unclear how much of the anxiety around it is warranted. But several bright signs showed people breaking through the blinders.

One was Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf who allowed the docking of the Grand Princess cruise ship, with confirmed cases aboard. The ship had sailed in circles for days off the coast, a nightmare for passengers who’d anticipated a luxury cruise to Hawaii. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said about opening the port. “We have to not let our fear dictate or impede our humanity.”

That compassion was echoed by Eric Drake, who held aloft a sign as passengers disembarked: “Welcome home! U r not a #!” He referred to the president’s reluctance to let the ship land because he didn’t want the numbers of US cases to increase.

Several doctors have also raised voices of sanity, criticizing the waves of fear and stockpiling, the theft of masks from hospitals where they’re vitally needed. Most of all, they question the messages we’re sending our children about the loss of reason and altruism in the face of something we don’t yet fully understand. Blindness and insight take different forms, but have characterized humanity since biblical times.

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020



The Samaritan Woman Speaks–Lent 3

I just wanted to fill my bucket and get home before it got any hotter. But that plan got derailed by the most marvelous conversation…

I wanted to tell the stranger, “you must be new around here. Jewish men don’t talk to Samaritan women in public.” Or, “Look, pal. I gotta get home. The man I live with wants his water!”

Instead, I got pulled into this amazing discussion. This wandering teacher took me seriously. He didn’t dismiss my desires as everyone else would–dangerous unless controlled by men! In fact, he never got his drink. I never filled my bucket. We set aside our pressing projects, our differences with our churches  and each other for a short time—and whoosh! “Water gushing up to everlasting life!”

I guess he liked my nerve. After all, I’ve broken all the social taboos—what have I got to lose? Maybe you could say I was open to his message. And I liked the way he invited—never coerced. My life was pretty topsy-turvy anyway; I was used to surprises. He probed my past, but not in a mean way. Somehow, he led me from talking about ordinary water to another plane altogether.

I used to think the lines between Jews and Samaritans were rigid as walls. After all, everyone in my world regarded them as high barriers. But this guy didn’t seem to care; he dismissed big differences easy as fluff on the wind. He reminded me a bit of the prophets—like Amos or Micah or Isaiah, focused on the important things, trying to lure me away from the trivia. You could say I’d already stepped out of religious circles, or they had scorned me. Maybe that’s why I responded to him so fast; at some level, I already knew what he was saying.  Much later, I remembered his phrase, “If you knew the gift of God…” Well maybe I do. Or I’m learning.

As we talked, I glimpsed something deep within myself, a depth I never knew I had. It was that spark within that responded to his promise. He made me feel happy, dignified—as I never had before.  Many don’t notice an important sentence in my story:  “then the woman left her water jar…” No more defining  MY  life by domestic drudgery! Now I know I’m cut out for more. It’s rumored that years later, women left their jars filled with embalming spices at an empty tomb. They too found more important things to do, like witness a resurrection.

Remember how I came to the well—alone, at the hottest time, when no one else would be there, avoiding the gossips and judges? That all changed. I ran back to my village loud as a brass band. No longer ashamed, I was so caught up in astonishment, I could trumpet, “he told me everything I’ve ever done!” Suddenly I felt strong, like a precious vessel spilling over with good news. Bursting, I began to tell the town…  (Jn. 4:1-42)

Excerpt from MORE HIDDEN WOMEN OF THE GOSPELS by Kathy Coffey, which will be published by Orbis Press Nov. 20, 2020.

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

Lent and Joy

It may seem an odd combination, the symbols of penance and the rebirth of spring. Why does the church’s long wisdom juxtapose something that suggests dark death with something that leads inevitably towards new life?


One explanation comes from environmentalists, who teach that the muddiest mulch produces the loveliest flowers. In a compost heap, dead leaves, rotten vegetable skins and over-ripe fruit create a rich and fertile soil. If this all sounds too earthy, remember that the rites of the church have always reverenced the ordinary: water, oil, candle wax, palm branches, bread, vines, wildflowers, ash.


In a scriptural context, read the Book of Esther, which is admittedly a bit risqué. The beautiful queen who had hidden her Jewish identity from the king suddenly faces a situation where she must break the law, risking her life to save her people. She prepares by setting aside her jewelry and rich ointments, covering her head with ashes and dirt (4:13). She asks her people to join her; their gesture says: confronting mindless oppression and brutal violence, we feel ashen within. The mark on the forehead symbolizes a recognition of our human flaws, our desperate need for God. Esther is ultimately victorious: new life for the oppressed and preview of Easter joy!


Even in still-wintry climates, the days grow longer. We appreciate the extra daylight and look harder for the first hints of spring: crocuses, warmer temperatures or green shoots. Do these activities suggest how much we long for God’s reign of light?



Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

First Sunday of Lent: Comfort in the Desert

Some gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptations end with the phrase, “and angels waited on him.” After a dreadful ordeal, when Jesus is hungry and probably exhausted, the presence of the divine is somehow still with him. It is possible that angels attend all our lonely desert places. Where we sense the least comfort, there it abounds. Perhaps it’s a relationship, health or job issue, looming decision. How might God be present in difficult circumstances?

Two Ways of Seeing


An unfortunate decision was made at the Synod of Whitby in 664. There, two distinct ways of living Christianity came into conflict: the Celtic, originating from the beloved disciple, and the Roman, based on Peter’s authority.  As John Philip Newell writes in Listening for the Heartbeat of God (p. 94) “the tragic outcome was not that it chose the Roman mission,” but that it didn’t make room for both ways of seeing, both firmly rooted in the gospel. Christianity needn’t be limited to a single perspective when it can interweave such rich approaches.

The Petrine tradition looks for God in the teaching and life of the Church. The Celtic stream finds God in creation, seeing all life as sacramental. An imaginative blending of the two might look a bit like this:

The beatitude of the blooming magnolia

The canticle of the fountain

The great candelabra of moon and sun

The litany of the bees’ burrowing

The stately procession of river

The call to prayer of fields shining with dew

The candles of ornamental cabbage

The liturgy of the rhythmic waves and tides

The exultation of pink bud against blue sky

The children’s choir of hidden birds

The solid “Amen” of granite mountain.


Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020