“Dark and thorny is the pathway
where the sinner makes his way.
Yet beyond this vale of sorrows,
lies the fields of endless day.
Jesus, Jesus will go with you.
He will lead you to his throne.
He who died has gone before you;
Trod the winepress all alone.”
Those words come from a song sung by Harriet Tubman.As many know, Tubman was the famous abolitionist and force behind the Underground Railroad, who brought so many slaves to freedom in the years prior to the Civil War, often at great risk to herself. She would often sing this verse as a ‘signal song’ to nearby slaves so they would know she was there and could seek her out that night to begin the trek to the north – to the ‘Promised Land’ of freedom.
The evocative image of Jesus trodding through a winepress is an ancient image for Christians, in which Jesus himself is the grapes which are pressed for the wine – an image of his suffering and death for our salvation. He himself is the fruit of the vine which we drink to enter the Kingdom.
It is very understandable why a devout Christian like Harriet Tubman would use the image to remind slaves who found their own unjust suffering to be reprehensible and unbearable, that the image of Christ who she says “died and gone before you” (yet another image from the resurrection narratives!). Christ has shared in their suffering and “will go with you to his throne” – pointing a way to the hope of freedom – both in this life and the one to come.
To Harriet Tubman and those who traveled the Underground Railroad to freedom, those were words of promise and a reminder that they did not undertake their perilous journey alone – Jesus was with them.
It’s a reminder to all of us as we journey with each other through this current pandemic and all of its awful pain, suffering and separation as well, that Jesus, too, understands those things and by his life and his witness of compassion, care and justice leads us through the “vale of sorrows” to the “fields of endless day.”
The ongoing presence of the Risen Jesus strengthening the Christian community of the church is a centerpiece of today’s Scripture readings as well.
In the first reading, Peter and John proclaim the good news of Jesus to the people and to the Jewish leadership court, the Sandhedrin – the same body who had turned Jesus over to Pilate to be executed. For them it had only been a few weeks since that happened! Yet they boldly assert what they have seen and heard before those in power. They testify to their experience of Christ and the power of God within him, who motivates them.
The Gospel recaps many of the resurrection appearances we have heard in this week’s daily Mass readings since last Sunday, even as the Gospel of Mark reminds us that it took the disciples a while to find that ‘bold faith’ that Peter and John demonstrated.
Maybe in the midst of this pandemic, that has been the case for us, too. These experiences we are living through and the great suffering so many are enduring are a great test of our faith. We are heartbroken in so many ways. This pandemic is a “dark and thorny” path, as Harriet Tubman’s song says.
But in the locked rooms of our houses, and of our griefs, Jesus appears, like he did for his first disciples, to remind us that there is a Word of hope to proclaim – especially now. The whole world is ready for good news! And Jesus is with us to help us see it and share it, and, we pray, to find the path to the freedom of spirit we most seek, even as we await the physical freedom to move about in our world again.
God give you peace!
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As Director of Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), I have the opportunity to record video reflections on the readings of the Scriptures proclaimed at daily Mass. I do so as part of larger group of colleagues at the Conference, along with lay and ordained leaders from around the country. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the readings for the life of faith today and to share them here, along with the written text of the reflections. To view these video reflections for past and upcoming celebrations of the Eucharist, visit the USCCB website.