January 11, 2020 – Saturday after Epiphany; Vigil of the Baptism of the Lord
My stage acting career peaked when I was a junior in high school and went downhill from there. Although my role selling bagels in Fiddler on the Roof didn’t lead to any theatrical glory, the preparation did provide a welcome opportunity for me to deepen my appreciation of the Jewish people and culture. I’d already had Jewish friends and acquaintances, as well as some awareness of the Jewish cultural and religious traditions that I’d inherited. In college, I participated in several Pesach meals, briefly tried to learn a little bit of Hebrew, and visited numerous historical sites related to Jewish history during my study abroad in Germany. The Hebrew Scriptures have always intrigued me on some level, and I hope to someday make time to read the Talmud, though probably not the Mishnah. Even my boss is a Jewish carpenter (as the bumper sticker says). For a goy, I’d like to think I have a lot of heart for the Jewish people.
As one can imagine, I find the recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks to be absolutely repellent. One thing God has shown throughout history though is that no matter how bad things get, he will at the very least preserve a remnant of his chosen people to pass on memories, traditions, and stories. Memory allows for immortality. Tragedy and turmoil may bring destruction, but survival of any kind—and the hope thereof—give reason to celebrate life. St. Paul famously taunted death, writing “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Although these words certainly reflected Christian belief in the Resurrection, I’d like to think they also came from a bit of Jewish chutzpah. What greater freedom is there than to fully live in the face of death and refuse the temptations of fear and despair?
There is another, very different kind of death that is on my mind this week. After nearly 70 years of service, Marist High School in Bayonne, New Jersey will close its doors at the end of this academic year due to insufficient enrollment and all the sustainability challenges that entails. This is very sad news. Although I never worked at the school, part of me hoped that I would someday have the chance to. When I was first getting to know the Marist Brothers as a candidate, this was the school that inspired me, showing me what it could mean to educate the least favored in a loving spirit of radical inclusivity. Marist showed me what it meant to be Marist. It still does.
Three years ago, the Marist community rallied to stave off closure with a fundraising campaign that raised $750K in just a couple months. That fight gave the school an extension of three more years to love and learn together as a community. Marist High School rose like Lazarus from the tomb. Even Lazarus died again though.
Now Marist High School has to close, in what I am sure was a painful decision for all concerned. It is not choosing death however. Instead, school staff are redoubling their efforts to ensure that students end the year in the best situation possible. Members of the school community are using social media to share with the world joyful highlights of recent years, proclaiming, “Nothing can take this away!” They are right. In choosing to celebrate life in the face of closure, Marist is not reaching for a few more years but rather for eternity.
St. Marcellin Champagnat once wrote a letter of encouragement to one of the young teaching brothers regarding his students, that “[t]heir whole life will be the echo of what you will have taught them.” The same is true of today’s Royal Knights at Marist. What lessons of love, service, empathy, compassion, and acceptance will they carry with them as they gradually enter the professional world, raise their families, and continue to nurture friendships? When I was in Laredo, Texas last November, former students of St. Joseph’s Academy there approached me with their fond memories of that Marist school despite it having closed almost 50 years previously. Why wouldn’t Marist live on after closing? How could it not?
The last class at Marist High School in Bayonne will take place in June 2020. Everything after that is homework.
Although the video may be distracting (or perfect, depending on one’s perspective), the lyrics and sentiment behind this week’s “ear candy” reflects the determination of the Marist High School community to “live while [it’s] alive.” Many of the other lyrics are equally suitable, and once you add in the fact that Bon Jovi is from New Jersey, how am I going to choose anything different? The “brain food” sheds light on some of the challenges that receive too little attention in the USA. It represents the clear need we have for the young people to bring the mission and values they learned at Marist High School out into the world.
Ear Candy: “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi
Brain Food: “Who Killed the Knapp Family?” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Come back next Saturday for a new post!