Who is not here? Who is absent from this assembly? If you come to Mass in a small-town parish, it is easy enough to notice who is missing. But even mega-parishes are like large universities. People move in circles of known stories and recognized faces. So ponder, for a moment, who is not here with us.
There are, of course, the temporary absences. Someone is traveling this weekend. There was a reunion or a wedding. Someone else is down with the flu but, if all goes well, will soon be back. When chemotherapy is kind, she is here, but some weeks she just cannot make it. Happy and worrisome reasons mingle among the temporary absences.
But, let’s ask ourselves: Who is not here because they almost never are? Bring to mind some of those faces and ponder why they are not among us. Who is alienated from us? And why is that so?
Let’s ask ourselves: Who is alienated from us? And why is that so?
Perhaps the problem began in their own lives. Money and pleasure seemed better masters. Arrogance and pride may have had their role. Of course, it could be that some of those who are absent just slipped on the rodent wheel of modern life, and they have never been able to catch up.
Are there some who are absent from us because of shame? Guilt is a work of God; it helps us to grow. But shame is never an action of the Good Spirit. It sets us apart. If someone feels ashamed, is there something that we can do about that?
Are some absent because they have never felt this place to be their spiritual home? They have never found themselves challenged or comforted here. They were never asked to lend a hand. If you feel invisible, sooner or later you just disappear.
Guilt is a work of God; it helps us to grow. But shame is never an action of the Good Spirit.
In the world of the Gospel, leprosy banished its casualties from community. The only way to slow the spread of the disease was to expel its victims from all human contact. Alienated, they became strangers in their own communities. For Jesus to heal lepers was to restore them to the circle of their own humanity.
If to be church is to be baptized into Christ and into his mission, to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, isn’t it our duty to look for our lepers? To seek out those who are alienated from us? How will we answer, when the Father of all asks each of us: “Where is your brother? Where is your sister? Did you not see when they fell? Were you not moved with compassion?”
How will we answer, when the Father of all asks each of us: “Where is your brother? Where is your sister?”
Contemporary parishes breathe with only one lung because on any given Sunday half of the faithful are not in their pews. How much vitality is lost to a parish that breathes so shallowly? The church is not confined to her pews. If she is, she is truly paralytic. If you share some fellowship with these absent faces, here is what you can do.
- Find them and listen. What alienates all of us is having no one who will listen. Don’t enter with your questions. Come to listen. Being befriended and being faithful grow in tandem. Don’t make those who are absent your project. Just be their good friend.
- Be yourself. You don’t need talking points. If faith makes a difference in your life, it will show. It will bespeak itself without any calculation on your part. “For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Lk 12:12).
- Immerse yourself in Christ so that you become the Christ, finding his own in the world. Be more faithful to your own faith. Volunteer. Learn again to fast. Give yourself to prayer. Choose one of those faces and carry it to the Lord each time that you pray. Having learned something of his or her story, you can share it with the Lord.
Faith is a living thing. It either grows or it dies. If your faith contains no concern for those who are not here, it is not healthy. Imitate the apostle:
Brothers and sisters,
whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor 10:31-11:1).
Who is not here? We know their faces. And in our baptisms we became the Lord’s face, his voice and his hands. Either we become more like Christ each day or we begin to lose him ourselves.
If you need encouragement, if you need help, think of those faces that you have once known around this altar, faces whom you can no longer see because they have gone to be with the Lord. Do you really believe that their union with the Lord means their separation from us? Then you know nothing of the communion of saints.
They still come to this altar, where they prayed on earth. They gather around us each week, unseen yet faithful and mighty. Ask these faces, which have gone to glory, to help you as you seek out those beloved faces that have vanished.