Return to the Table

Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper


We can see how a year of COVID has inflicted much damage on human society. There may be a couple of positive outcomes like a dramatic decrease in fossil fuel use, and as a result a dramatic decrease in air pollution. But the planet has been exhibiting distress in other ways for some time now. Glaciers and ice shelves are melting more rapidly. Ocean temperatures are rising more quickly. Wildfires and hurricanes are becoming more frequent, growing more severe, and causing more damage. And these disruptions are affecting food production along with patterns in wildlife population, migration, and habitat.

There is no denying many people were not already facing devastating and insurmountable hardship daily even before the pandemic. All across the globe there has been widespread poverty, homelessness, hunger, isolation, fear, social anxiety, bullying, racial injustice, political and economic instability, indifference, and desperation. The pandemic may have just made a number of bad things worse. Our stress levels have increased, and avoidable conflicts ignited between opposing ideologies and historic enemies. People are throwing more epic tantrums and are disturbingly smug about it. Unkindness, hatefulness, and unprovoked violence are happening in full view. There is great anguish from random gun violence but not the political will to address it. There is more outrage over mandates to wear a mask than over our overwhelmed healthcare system and the continued rise in pandemic deaths.

Much of these challenges are properly the concern of those elected to public office and those who create public policy. But each of us bears responsibility for our own attitudes and behaviors. We too are more stressed, more anxious, more fearful. We too have grown complacent and are showing signs of compassion fatigue. It takes less effort to give in to selfishness and indifference and annoyance. But we harm our own spirits, and we harm others whether we know it or not. We know our Christian faith calls us to conquer selfish pride and aspire to what in us is more unto the likeness of God. We will struggle at this daily. But it helps to be reminded we can be even better.

During these days the Christian community is intensely focused on the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, God’s saving action to reconcile us with himself and with one another. A recent Gallup poll reports that more than ever, there are now fewer people in our country who claim any religious affiliation. The decline has been happening steadily over the last 20 years, so it’s nothing related to the pandemic. But during these days especially when we reaffirm why we choose to stay, we need to examine our convictions, acknowledge our complicity, and work to draw others to discover the beauty and joy of the faith that we have come to know and love. The gentle bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales, said it best. You can attract more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.

Many Catholics will say unless you can receive communion, there’s very little point going to church at all. Perhaps we have long been taught to believe the Eucharist is the pinnacle of our sharing in the life of God. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. All we are and all we do flows from the Eucharist and back to us and our lives. So on this holy night before our Lord submits to the horrors of the cross, we recall that first Eucharist while the gospel directs our attention from the Table to the Washing of Feet.

Now clearly the Table is the more central theme since the Washing of Feet is optional in these pandemic times. But Mass without Eucharist would clearly make little sense. We already knew that. Jesus already knew that. He probably feared we would also turn the Eucharist into a cultural battleground over who is deserving and who is not. But we need to remember both Judas and Peter were with Jesus at the Table. And he washed both their feet. But only Peter felt the need to argue with Jesus about it. So instead of arguing over who makes the guest list—Jesus does the inviting, not us, we might focus more on washing the feet of those who sit at table, that is, how we welcome and serve those whom Jesus invites to join the company of his disciples and believers.

First of all, pandemic limits to in-person church attendance are not about matters of faith. Bishops who suspend the obligation to attend Mass in person acknowledge it is a temporary fix for a temporary problem, and funerals resulting from the pandemic are unnecessary and avoidable. So churches and pastors resorted to live-streaming Mass so those who have not yet been vaccinated and those who don’t feel safe can stay connected. But there are obvious limits to digital connectivity. It’s just not the same. Even spiritual communion leaves us wanting more. But unless we nurture the desire to return to the Eucharistic Table, we will not see an overwhelming desire to return to church.

This takes us back to the Gallup poll. It seems the decrease in church affiliation is most acute for Catholics, probably due in no small way to the clergy sex abuse crisis, the politicizing of painfully divisive moral issues, and the increasing disconnect with young people and their immediate concerns. What the continuing struggle for recognition and rights in various sectors of society continues to show us is that turning a deaf ear will do nothing to address grievances or silence protests or heal what hurts. Instead when people can sit at table together, we have to start somewhere, there is hope of open-mindedness and dialogue and change. Our ability to welcome others graciously to the table ultimately determines who has a voice, who will be heard, and who is open to transformation. Jesus invited. Peter argued semantics. Judas left early. People will do what people choose to do. It’s not for us to stop them. We need to do what Jesus did.

Secondly, and there could be more but that’s for another time at another table, the Eucharistic Table is not where we argue about who is and who is not deserving. If we are truly honest, none of us is deserving. I know I’m not. And since I need to be here or it doesn’t happen, I really should have the final say about who may and who may not approach. And I really don’t care whether you are Judas or Peter or someone else at Jesus’ Table. Because as long as you and I are at the same Table, there is hope of open-mindedness and dialogue and change. By welcoming each other to the Table we have said who has a voice, who will be heard, and who is open to transformation. Some will argue semantics and theology and who gets to go to heaven. Some will leave early. All will break Bread. All will hear Jesus’ invitation to wash each other’s feet. It is Jesus who invites to the meal. Be Judas. Be Peter. Be whoever you are. Wash each other’s feet.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021