It was a Saturday afternoon in early July 2008. My uncle was walking around the house when a call came through on his cell. He answered to hear his friend’s voice speaking with a frightening tone, “Mark, I’m calling to say goodbye. You’ve always been a good friend to me…”
Paul Furey had been been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for more than a year. After chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, his doctors at the Mayo Clinic told him he had a few months to live.
It was then that a group of his best friends made the trip to Minnesota for one last weekend with Paul. My uncle said they didn’t talk about death that weekend. They knew how brutal his cancer had been, but at the time there was still hope in one last experimental treatment Paul was about to begin. So they lived it up! They went out on the town; they relived the college memories they had shared together; they visited the sites of Paul’s childhood, to celebrate his life together. At one point during their festivities, Paul took a sharp turn onto a dirt road, then out onto a frozen lake. His friends lost their heads and clung to their seats in fear. Then Paul spun the car around in the middle of the lake, and turning to them and smiling he said, “I just thought you should know what imminent death feels like.”
Back home, my Uncle Mark called Paul about once a week to check in, but there was still a hope he’d make it through. Then came that Saturday phone call. From his first words, Mark knew the end was close. He sat there in shock, listening silently to the farewell.
Then Paul began to say, “I guess I should be going.”
Mark didn’t know what to say, but didn’t want to hang up.
He burst out, “Paul… how are you?”
After a pause, Paul said back, “…I know whose I am.”
He was talking about Jesus. And that was the last conversation in this life that those two friends had. Paul Furey, a philosopher and faithful friend, died a few days later at 43 years old.
Why do last words mean so much to us? What sense can we make of that whole “environment” that surrounds farewells? It can be something sober like death or joyous like a wedding, but every word has a new weight. Everything that happens matters. And often love is warmed and flares up to make us act in ways we wouldn’t normally act, or say things we wouldn’t normally say. One part of the puzzle is that we don’t like change. We even feel funny watching old home videos, let alone dealing with death. The moment we realize a great change or loss is coming about, we strangely undergo two opposite reactions at once: we step back and consider our life, and we engage and try to take in every word and detail. It is during farewells that we are most awake!
Today, of course, is Holy Thursday. It is the night Jesus says farewell to his friends, the night he leaves them with his last words. But he leaves them with more than words: he leaves them the Eucharist. We often think of the Eucharist in terms of what it is, or what it does. Less often do we consider the Eucharist in context: “With great desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you before I suffer” (Lk 22:15). The Eucharist is his parting gift before going away.
Yet if he gave this gift when they knew he was leaving, when he had their full attention and he knew they would not miss its importance, why have so many missed its importance? The true presence of the Eucharist is denied by other religions and even by fellow Christians. Even among Catholics who do receive communion, we often struggle to feel or see any real change it has in our lives.
If we consider the context of this event, it can help us begin to better understand. Although the Eucharist is the last act of Jesus’ mission (as it is one event with his death and resurrection), for the apostles it is just the beginning. The apostles that night had their whole lives ahead of them. The Eucharist is a “long distance” medicine, helping us all through this life and into eternity. Jesus gave the Eucharist as a way of saying “farewell.” And it is literally just that. It is the bread that ensures that our “faring” goes “well.” It is bread for the journey home to the Father’s house. In his last words, Paul Furey said that he knew who he belonged to! Our reception of the Eucharist may not immediately sort out our every emotion or heal us from every temptation, but it does give us confidence that we belong to God.
To borrow a line from a great poet, Juliet says to Romeo, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” And so it is in our lives. Jesus knows tonight that his apostles and his Church still have a ways to go. In him they have found the only real joy in life, and in him death will be destroyed. But they will have to journey on while no longer seeing his face. This is the sorrow carried by every person who has ever loved Jesus. So in our sorrow, he gives us bread from heaven, “having all sweetness within it,” as one common prayer says. The Eucharist is Jesus. We carry him in us, and he quietly guides us on our way.
But how do we know it all to be true? We know the Eucharist is real because Christ said so. To have faith isn’t to evaluate whether what the person says is likely or beautiful or even makes perfect sense. Faith is to believe what a person says because of the one speaking! All throughout the gospels the crowds react to Jesus’ teaching not with, “That’s easy! It makes perfect sense!” Rather, the evangelists tell us many times, “They marveled that he taught them with authority.” St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Eucharistic hymn Adoro te devote:
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing, that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.
Come Lord Jesus, and in the Eucharist give us strength along the way.
Image: Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper