It was late by the time the chief steward made it back up to the room. The space was dark, and silent, but the homey smell of bread still hung in the air along with the honeyed scent of apple. He stood for a moment in the cool of the night air, enjoying the quiet, and then took a deep breath and looked around. All things considered, the steward was impressed. From what he could tell by the starlight, the room was remarkably clean, especially considering what it had looked like a few hours ago. Feasts in this room took a long time to clean up, and Passover feasts took even longer. For every single plate and cup, all the food and the wine, the napkins and bowls and candlesticks and lanterns and cushions and olive pits and pomegranate peels not only had to be gathered up but then walked downstairs. Each leftover bit of lamb, each dirty dish had to be carried down not one but two flights of stairs to the outside kitchens. It was, the steward thought to himself, a real pain in the neck, not to mention the back.
Not that it wasn’t worth it, of course. At least to his master, and to his master’s guests. When this room was set for a dinner, there was not another place to rival it in all of Jerusalem. Scores of candles burning in their sconces gave the walls a rich, buttery glow. The low, U-shaped table sparkled with newly-shined silver; the cushions set about on the floor were as vibrant and rich as the finest robes of the temple and yet still as soft as lamb’s wool. It was a large room but always felt cozy and comfortable, and when the soft evening breezes purred in through the open windows – well, the steward thought, there was no finer place to be in all the world.
Except now, perhaps. Now when the room seemed so naked and plain. Without all the jewel-colored cushions and the light glinting off silver, the room looked a bit – well – dull. Dull walls, dull ceiling, dull floor. Dull table – enormous dull table, but still dull. Still, the steward thought, the dull was clean, at least, except for a jug of something fragrant still sitting on the floor, and one napkin left folded on the table. Clean. His staff had done well. He was pleased. The owner would be pleased. His job here was done.
And yet, the steward found himself still standing there, looking from floor to table to ceiling. He moved over to the table and sat down on the edge – something he never would have done in the owner’s presence – and tried to coax out a word for the feeling that was pricking at the depths of his heart. Sadness, he thought. Or perhaps loneliness. But no, not exactly the word he was looking for. His eyes moved to the center of the table, and suddenly it hit him. Empty. The room was so empty, so utterly, unavoidably empty.
It hadn’t been so earlier in the evening. For into the space that was already full of glossy cushions and shining silver had come a whole troop of men. Twelve, thirteen of them, the steward remembered. He had known the number ever since two of them had approached him a few days ago when on his way back from the well, and the steward had set up the room accordingly. He was, after all, very good at his job. Just enough space for each man to recline and eat, just enough support from the cushions to make him comfortable, just enough food on the table for it to look voluptuously full without being so crowded that the men might be in danger of knocking over the oil while reaching for the sweets.
But no, the steward thought, it wasn’t the number of men that made the room feel full. It was the men themselves, their intensity, their energy – the look in their faces, simultaneously full of joy and full of fear; the way they leaned in to listen to each other; the way each breath seemed pregnant with expectation. There was energy in that room, energy between the men, and wave upon wave of energy swirling around their leader, who had eyes that were so full they looked broken with love.
And all of that energy had spilled over into the feast. The men ate voraciously, licked their lips and ate some more. They drank the wine down to the dregs, talked and argued and sang and prayed like it was their last night on earth. And the night had been filled with other things, too, the steward thought. The leader had washed their feet, filling the room with the scent of sweet water and a pile of wet towel. And then he had talked. So much talking! So many words – of prayer and prophecy, of advice and warning, words that spun in and around themselves for so long and with such speed and fluidity that the steward, standing in his corner, felt dizzy with them.
And in the midst of all of this – the food and the drink, the water and the words – there was something even more, something that filled up every single nook and cranny in that room like seawater finds the space between grains of sand. Not fear, although that was certainly there. Not love, although that was there too. No, the presence the steward felt was more than just some commonplace, if complicated, human emotion. It was something Other, something Large. It was Holiness itself, that which has a name that must not be spoken, and it filled all the space between the men in the room. It seeped into their clothes and their hearts. It permeated the bread and the wine, blew into the candle flame and soaked into the napkins until every person, every thing, was entirely, incomparably full.
But no more. Now all was gone – the men, the wine, the words, the Other. And the steward felt it. Instead of just seeing a clean room that would need no extra work from him in the morning, he found himself filled with a keen sense of loss. So strange, he thought. Never before had he been so attached to a group that had sat in this room. And there had been many – hundreds, probably, during his time. But this one, this group and the holiness they brought with them seemed to have gotten inside him in a particular way – and now, now he felt the presence of their absence so sharply.* He felt empty, in an empty room, in the still and empty hours of the night.
He sat for a moment, feeling the hollowness in his chest, until the breeze through the window reminded him of home and bed and sleep. He stood, and stretched his back, and something in the starlight caught his eye. Ah, he thought, better pick up that stray napkin while I’m up here. He bent and took the cloth in his hand, felt something inside it. Probably a bit of rind, he thought, and opened the cloth in his palm. But what sat there, wrapped within the cloth, was not a rind or some other bit of rubbish. It was bread, a small, round piece of bread, wrapped up in that cloth as if it had been a baby in swaddling clothes. How strange, the steward thought, this one piece of bread left here, in this empty space. He sat down and looked at the bread. Just bread, really, not even much smell to it anymore. And yet he didn’t put the bread down, or wrap it up, or take it downstairs. He just sat and looked at it, and as he sat, he remembered what he had heard the man with the sad eyes say earlier that evening: This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. He had said it so clearly, so directly, as if he were saying it individually to each person in the room. His voice was soft, but his eyes were ablaze – not sad eyes, the steward thought now, or not just sad, but also full of purpose and infinitely kind. He could hear that voice just here, next to his ear, as if it were speaking to him, now. This is my body that is for you. For you. Do this in remembrance of me.
And suddenly, without warning, the steward felt his heart grow full. He looked at the bread and heard the words and the eyes of his heart were opened. For he saw that even in that space that seemed as empty as death, that presence was still there. That presence was still there – not dissipated into the night, as he had thought, but condensed into this moment, this bit of bread and all of the promise and hope and love that had been in this place. That presence was still there inside him, and he knew, somehow he just knew, that he would take it out into the night with him, into his home and his bed, into his dreams and his waking, his loving and his working, his life and his death. He knew that that presence would be with him, even to the end of the ages, even when his life felt empty, even when his world echoed with the sounds of faded dreams and hopes, of lost comforts and assurances. He sat gazing down upon that bread, and he knew that that presence was still with him, and not just with him, but for him. And he knew that his heart, and this room, and this night, and this world, would never, never, never be empty again. That this world, and this night, and this room, and all hearts will never be empty again.
*The phrase "presence of absence" borrowed from a letter of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
24 March 2016 - Maundy Thursday
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia