In these weeks of sacramental fasting, we have emphasized other ways that God in Christ is present to us in other means of grace. We’ve focused more on the presence of Christ in the Word, for example. We’ve highlighted how Jesus is present in our holy conversations when two or three gather in Jesus’ name.
But is there a place for some kind of Eucharistic piety even now when we are not celebrating the Eucharist? Today’s gospel reading invites us to explore this question, I believe.
Think about this: Jesus’ real presence in the breaking of the bread and lifting the cup is predicated on his absence. We celebrate Holy Communion only because Jesus of Nazareth, whom we confess as the Christ, no longer walks this earth the way he did in ancient days in what is now present-day Israel and Palestine.
Moreover, the holy supper was instituted the night before his death that would unleash the power of God for his resurrection and return to the God, whom he called Abba. Jesus gave plenty of forewarning about his impending departure in the farewell discourse of John’s Gospel concerning his return to the Father.
In short, the real presence of Christ that we celebrate in the Eucharist would not be if were not for the absence of the Jesus who at first took on flesh as we have and walked this earth as we do.
So, here’s another question for us to consider, then. Can the absence of celebrating Holy Communion now make for some kind of experience of Jesus’ presence? That is, again, what place does the Eucharist have in our season of fasting from this sacrament?
In response to this query, let’s consider the dynamics of grief. When we feel acutely the loss of a loved one, their palpable absence, there is a sense in which the person we lost is still making a claim on us, on our attention, on our consciousness. The pain of loss is in a paradoxical way a kind of presence.
If we have forgotten our departed ones, if we fail to remember them, then they are truly absent, their claim on us is diminished, if not eradicated. And we may be left with a sense of numbness, without really feeling anything. Is that how we want to live our lives?
In contrast, grief’s claim on us can evoke palpable reminders of our loved ones’ presence. It can be bittersweet, but nonetheless crucial for us to remember our loved ones.
Hence the central importance of the words recorded as Jesus’ own in relation to the Last Supper, words that would become central to the prayers at the Eucharist: “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
As I advance in years, and have increasingly experienced the death of loved ones and friends, and have moved from call to call, and state to different state, I am palpably aware of the accumulation of loss, of grief at losing beloved ones and leaving other people and places behind.
And I am increasingly aware that I, that we, never really get over grief. The acute phases of loss and grief may pass, but then the remembrance of loved ones is called to mind on certain occasions and circumstances, and all the grief comes flooding back again. But along with the grief is also the bittersweet presence of those whom we have lost.
So maybe what we are left with in this season of extended Eucharistic fasting is the paradox of Christ’s ongoing claim on us that is a kind of presence in the void of the pit of our stomachs, in the depths of our souls, when we long to take the bread into our mouths, and lift the cup to our lips, when we are hungry, when we thirst.
Hear these words again from today’s gospel reading – the disciples said, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Listen to these words edited, redacted: “We have nothing here.” Or even more tersely, “We have nothing.” For it was a deserted place with a lot of nothing. In many ways, we are in a deserted place as we shelter at home during the pandemic.
And yet, Jesus makes something out of apparently nothing, and he does so in a place of desertion and desolation. Jesus made something out of nothing because Jesus had compassion for the crowds. Jesus has compassion for us, too, in these latter days.
And the little something that Jesus makes out of nothing goes a long way in feeding the crowds. It did back then. It does now.
In the void we feel in the pits of our stomachs, in our heart of hearts, is a great deal of energy. Longing, desire, hunger, thirst are powerful, energetic forces in human experience that drive all sorts of different behaviors.
The Spirit of Jesus is there in the energy of loss, palpably present in our longing, our desire, our hunger, our thirst for the Eucharist, for communion with Christ, and with each other, and with all the saints.
Maybe such longing, desire, hunger, and thirst will deepen our empathy and justice-seeking responses to those who literally hunger and thirst for their daily bread and for a cup of cold water.
Maybe this season of sacramental fasting will propel us more significantly to nurture a feast of justice, of commonwealth, where and when all may be fed and filled.
Let it be so in the painfully palpable presence of Jesus in the voids of our longing, our own hunger, our own thirst.
God help us discern Christ’s paradoxical, mysterious presence even now in our fasting – for the sake of a world that is hungry and thirsty. Amen.
Now I invite you to take some time in quiet to become aware of and dwell with your hunger, your thirst, your longing, your desire.
Then reflect on this question and perhaps engage in some holy conversation with someone near or far:
- What does the awareness of your hunger, your thirst, your longing, your desire inspire you to do?
May your reflection and holy conversation bear fruit for the sake of our hungry, thirsty world.