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At Our Tables This Holy Week

A New York Times article this week talked about one of the many impacts of the coronavirus pandemic: the way in which many of us “winnowed our portfolio of friends” to a smaller group. One woman explained succinctly the selection criteria for who she stayed in touch with: “They get me.”

Today is the day that Christians throughout the world celebrate Jesus gathering with a small group for the first night of Passover. Jesus gathers with a small group of apostles—twelve, in Western Christian tradition—for the ritual meal that is also his last supper. It’s worth paying particular attention this year to who Jesus includes in his circle that momentous night, particularly as Christians in many places are, thankfully, also taking some steps out of pandemic isolation—and as many Americans continue to grapple with the challenging divisions the last year has highlighted.

The apostles were, on one level, people who “got” Jesus, the way that woman in the Times article says her friends “get’ her. When Jesus recruited two of them by saying he would “make them fishers of men,” they dropped their paid work in an instant and followed him. They remained faithful after he was gone bodily from them; several of the apostles would be martyred for their continued faithfulness to him. They were loyal, steadfast companions—precisely the kind we’ve been most likely to keep in our closest circles in these last pandemic months. If Jesus had needed a pandemic pod, it’s easy to imagine it being these twelve, along with a few others.

But they are a flawed bunch. Judas, there at the table with Jesus, has already betrayed him, setting the stage for Jesus’ arrest, torture, and death in the next 24 hours—and Jesus knows it even as he sits down. Peter is also there, asserting enthusiastically that he will follow Jesus even to death; Jesus knows that Peter is just hours away from betraying him too.

Even on a less dire note, the apostles are not always the A-team. Just hours after the Last Supper, Jesus invites a few of the apostles to go with him to Gethsemane to be with him as he prays—and they fall asleep on him. The Gospels are full of stories where the apostles just don’t quite get what Jesus wants of them.

At the Last Supper, then, Jesus literally breaks bread with friends who are in the process of letting him down. He is capable of miracles—of calling down thunderbolts and damnation upon them—but instead, he washes their feet and converses with them. Surely that says something to Christians about who we choose to encounter.

Technology makes it possible for us to stay in our bubbles, with people who “get” us. Both pandemic habits and the wearying divisions in American life—including divisions among American Catholics—can make it tempting to continue limiting our interactions to those few like-minded folks.

Yet if we are to live as Easter people—as those with the hope that comes from knowing we are loved by God more than we deserve—then we are called to form community as Jesus did, even with those we disagree with or those who have the capacity to break our hearts.

As my colleague Christian Dallavis explained a few weeks ago, one way that we can live out what it means to be Easter people as Catholic schools is to keep our doors as wide open as possible to new students, and to families who may not fit our tidiest notions of those who “get” what our schools are about.

Pope Francis explains other dimensions of what it means to live a culture of encounter: “not just seeing, but looking; not just hearing, but listening; not just passing people by, but stopping with them.” Given that Francis hasn’t always made the pronouncements Catholics of many stripes have hoped for, even the Pope himself may be one of the folks we struggle to encounter, rather than simply scrolling past him.

One great promise of Christian life is this: that if we stretch ourselves to encounter those who make us uncomfortable, we may also find in that encounter a greater sense of Christ present in our midst, either in others or in our own grace-filled actions toward them. So this Holy Thursday, as many of us are able to engage with more people safely, may we resist the urge to interact only with those we are comfortable around. And may we find in our encounters—even the uncomfortable ones—that Christ is in our midst.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.