[The following is the text preached by our deacon Brother Joseph at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.]
On a late November morning in 2004, I got up at 5 a.m., stopped at Starbucks for coffee and a pumpkin scone just as they opened, and blazed my way up the winding ascent of the Ute Pass into the Front Range of Colorado, where I was living at the time. I spent several hours hiking up to the snowy, wind-scoured heights of Bison Peak in the Lost Creek Wilderness, seeing no one until almost halfway back down the mountain. On the way home, I picked up a take-and-bake pizza from Papa Murphy’s, which I ate alone in my apartment. And that was how I celebrated Thanksgiving. It was not a Norman Rockwell slice of Americana with generations of family members gathered around a table groaning under a roast turkey and all the trimmings. Neither was it a despondent, lonely day. It was the fourth consecutive Thanksgiving I had spent in Colorado, and in previous years I had celebrated with friends who were also unable to make it back home. But I was moving back to Michigan in just over a month to be closer to my family, and Thanksgiving alone was not the most lonely option. I knew where I was from, where I was going, and where I belonged, even if I wasn’t actually there. And while I was still eating a mediocre pizza by myself, I knew that 1500 miles away there was a table in my father’s house with a place for me. I expect that we all have had these experiences of gatherings that were incomplete, whether we were the one absent or it was someone else.
We are gathered tonight to celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, the great festal family banquet of the Church. But this year is different. The church is decorated as usual and ablaze with light. The brothers have entered with incense and chant. But I stand here at the ambo and look out over empty pews, and I know the doors of the church remain locked. It threatens to cast a pall over the celebration.
But this overlooks the important fact that we only miss what ought to be present. We don’t miss strangers who aren’t at Thanksgiving dinner with us: we miss our absent family members. The very sense of absence and loss we feel tonight is proof that we all have been called to the Supper of the Lamb. We all belong here, where God has prepared a place for us, his beloved children. It is a place that was created for us from before time began, that became ours in baptism, and has become ever more our own by our past participation in the Mass.
We can also overlook the reality that at times God withdraws from us, not to punish us, but because in his love he desires to rekindle and stir up our longing for him. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” says the proverb, but “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” This is a time of absence and spiritual hunger, but even that proves that our true food is in Christ.
And while to the disciples the Last Supper was complete in their small group, Jesus saw beyond to all those who would ever be members of the Church. In that small gathering he saw everyone who would ever come to believe through the message they would proclaim, a message that would spread and bear fruit throughout the whole world, across all time. Even there in the upper room he saw you and prayed to the Father for you, even as tonight be sees you and prays for you, for he sees not only what is, but what will be, when he has gathered us all to himself in heaven. The words of Shakespeare’s sonnet could be our Lord’s own when he says, “Thyself away are present still with me, For thou not farther than my thoughts canst move, And I am still with them, and they with thee.”