Holy Saturday Ponderings: Eucharistic Absence

Holy Saturday Ponderings: Eucharistic Absence April 1, 2018

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I think Holy Saturday is my favorite day of the liturgical year.


I sit in the confession line today, in the only Roman Catholic church I’ve ever known to offer confessions on Holy Saturday at their normal Saturday noon time. I found this out last year, when I sat in this same pew on Holy Saturday, also waiting to confess my sins. I’m certainly consistent, at least.


As I sit here, texting my long-suffering roommate who has kindly driven me to my last chance reconciliation before tomorrow’s Easter feast, I reflect on Holy Saturday. My roommate is outside by the Marian grotto in the sunlight, fearing to enter the emptiness imbuing the sanctuary. Christ is missing. The church echoes His absence as the elderly church elves putter around nudging lilies into place and watering pots of hyacinth.


Our texting helped me realize why I love this day so much: it is precisely because of Christ’s absence from the Tabernacle. This church I know so well suddenly has a different atmosphere. The pressure has changed. It feels so …hollow. And this emptiness forces me to realize yet again that something deep, deep within me does sense His presence there in the Tabernacle each Sunday. It must, if I can be so aware of His absence today.


I realize once again how numb my heart grows to this awareness all year long until this day when His gone-ness wakes me up again.


I suppose absence, death, always does that.


I didn’t use to love the Eucharist. I’ve already written on my near-suicidal childhood scrupulosity. During that time I’d beat myself up because, while I wished to believe all that the Church teaches about the True Presence, and I never actively doubted it—I simply couldn’t wrap my head around this teaching. I’m pretty imaginative normally, but I couldn’t imagine this one, and I would make myself sick trying to imagine that this odd-tasting white wafer and over-sweet wine are flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of a living God-man who loves me.



It was like a full blockage—mental, spiritual, emotional, physical. Nothing.


I envied my friend Abby whom I’d known since I was five and she was six, who was then a novice with my favorite nuns. When she received the Eucharist, her whole body seemed to tremble. I’d watch her, feeling like an intruder to a very intimate kiss between lover and beloved.


And I craved that kiss.


I told my friend about this blockage in me once, when I was visiting her at the convent, getting ready to leave. I told her I craved belief as I feebly described this disconnect I felt between myself and the Eucharist.


Her words have stayed with me for the past eight years. First, knowing my history of scrupulosity as she did, she put my fears to rest: the Eucharist is such a mystery, this Sacrament, that I could not force it, no matter how hard I tried. It was a gift. All I had to do was let Christ know I wanted to believe, and wait for him to do the rest.


She suggested I pray that, despite my obstinate head, Christ would help my heart, my soul, to recognize and thirst for him, whether the rest of me could become aware of it or not.


So I did. For two years I prayed, hoping and trusting that my heart rejoiced despite the numbness I felt. And for two years it was still … nothing.


I’ve said before that it’s hard to talk about the Eucharist without being Cupcakey.


Well, I’ve risked it before, and I’ll risk it again.


Two years after my discussion with Abby I went on retreat with a group of students from the local college. When we arrived at the cabins where the retreat was being held, I quickly sought out the one they’d turned into a chapel, hoping I’d have time later to sneak back and journal in front of the tabernacle before bed. But when I walked in the door, the cabin felt empty—almost like the air was thin. I looked up and realized the tabernacle was bare, and my heart sunk.


The next day at lunch, the priest came in to announce that he had consecrated the hosts at Mass that morning, so please be respectful because the Eucharist was now reposed in the chapel. And I felt this instantaneous, unsolicited joy …


But it wasn’t until we sat in the chapel that evening, once again waiting for confession (are you noticing a pattern?), that I made the realization. Unprompted, I had mourned the absence of the Eucharist. I’d felt the emptiness, the barren stillness. And now here I sat, feeling joy, peace, fullness, in His presence. My brain still couldn’t fathom, imagine, grasp, (pick what word you please) that this wafer and wine were anything beyond just that, but for the first time, my heart let me know that it knew. And that was enough.


Every once in a while, I’m reminded of this experience, the moment I fell in love with the Eucharist. Or rather, the moment I realized I already was deeply in love. And Holy Saturday is always one of those days.


My friends ask me why I love the Eucharist so much, and I struggle to find an answer. It’s not intellectual, I try to explain. It’s a pull, an ache in my gut.


That ability to sense His presence hasn’t left since that retreat five years ago. I mostly take it for granted these days, but I still feel Him there when I walk into a Church. And sometimes it takes the emptiness to remind me, when the fullness is missing, that I do know Him now, that my heart still aches with that pull to Him.


And on Holy Saturday this ache intensifies. The church, usually a temple housing my Holy of Holies, becomes a hall—a mere structure, an empty shell of brick and paint and shards of grotesquely-colored glass. His presence, thick and permeating as incense, is gone. My God is dead, and I mourn.


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