A few years ago I was on my way to the student residence where I said a weekly evening Mass in a lounge. A fierce storm with crazy thunder and lightning had just passed over the town, and I passed a street where a tree had fallen and pulled down the power lines that were right beside it. A large wire had been detached, and it was dancing on the ground with sparks shooting out of one end. Everyone nearby was giving it wide berth, afraid of course that it they strayed too close they would be electrocuted.
I looked up at the wires on the poles up and down the street. It’s funny how we are so used to seeing them that we don’t notice how they are everywhere, and actually they’re pretty ugly and primitive-looking. Some of the poles have lots of wires hanging off them, some have big round transformers or large ‘knuckles’ of switches and regulators at the junctions of the wires. From what I know of the power grid system, those wires come out of the power plant with an amazing 700,000 volts, and then they are stepped down by a transformer to 7200 volts for transmission at 300 mile lengths. When the power finally gets to your house, it’s stepped down to 240 volts max. But that is enough to kill you if you are unfortunate enough to touch a live electrical wire in your home.
Watching that wild wire dancing in the street was kind of mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and I was in awe that so much power could be carried within a relatively small piece of wire. All that power hanging in the streets outside our homes. All that power giving us lights, music, TV images, Facebook pages, air conditioning and heat, cold milk, hot water, phone charging, and hair drying.
As I approached the residence hall, I discovered that the fallen power line had affected the campus as well. There were some emergency lights on in the hallways, but the lounge where we would celebrate Mass was in darkness. No problem, I thought. I usually used lots of candles on the small table that functioned as the altar anyway. And I could use my iPhone for music, although I noticed that my phone was almost out of juice.
I had initiated this type of informal Mass in the residence hall because I wanted students---many of whom had abandoned Mass attendance at school and at home—to have an experience of spiritual intimacy with Jesus and with one another. In a setting like this Church, where you are way out there and the altar and I and all the ministers are way up here, the formality of the ritual and the space can sometimes make us feel disassociated with the person of Jesus and one another. Even the kiss of peace can feel at times very forced and uncomfortable. Many of my students found the Masses at their home churches to be distant, sterile, lifeless, and uninspiring. Of course, some of that was their attitude and lack of devotion, but the truth is I have experienced the same feelings often enough myself.
We set up and lit about 15 candles on our little altar, and everyone sat on the floor around the table like you do when you are going to have a meal with your family. That's actually the way the disciples were with Jesus at the Last Supper, on the floor, candlelight revealing their faces. The candlelight played off the young faces of the students as well, who brought all their adolescent concerns with them that night: Who am I? Who do I really belong to? What kind of a person am I meant to be in the world? Along with those questions were their fears that they were not as attractive or smart or wealthy or athletic as their peers, their worries about their grades, their concerns about their families, their dreams for success and love and a good life. We prayed informally to be touched by the Lord during our time together in the dark, and then we listened to stories about Jesus the man and our brother and his own path of self-discovery in relationship to the divine. And then we sought to experience the presence of Jesus in our shared meal, to experience right then and there the hope and the love that promised far more to each of us than a fancy university degree or a prestigious job and salary at a top ten corporation could offer.
We held hands when we prayed the Our Father (slowly, by the way, so that we really listened to what we were asking for), and then, when it came time for the kiss of peace, we got up off the floor. A handshake would never do. Do you think that’s how Jesus welcomed friend and stranger? No, hugs were in order, even if we didn’t know one another all that well.
And here’s the thing that happened that night that drove a lesson home for me. As we reached out our arms towards one another for a hug, a surprising, unexpected spark of electricity popped between each of our encounters. And they weren’t little sparks—they had amazing power to them. The first shocks took us all by surprise, but as we went around the room--one to the other--the shocks continued. In the darkness of the room you could see these big sparks each time we approached one another. A couple of the girls fake-screamed and declared that they wouldn’t hug anyone else, but then of course they did, followed by more fake screams, followed by hysterical laughter. We were all laughing out of control. Such electricity on a night when we thought the power was out! Our kiss of peace lasted a lot longer than usual at that Mass, and when we finally sat down, moving on to Communion, something about the group had definitively changed. When we shared and consumed the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine, we knew that Jesus was above, below, around and within each of us, we just knew it in the center of our souls. And we knew that just as we belonged to Him, and to one another, we were part of something way beyond what we could truly understand.
I clicked on a song on my iPhone, I think it was Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up, and we were all deeply moved by it. Then suddenly it stopped in the middle of a dramatic part. I looked down at the phone and realized that my battery had died. That got us all laughing again. It was a good laugh, the kind of laugh that I’m sure Jesus would have enjoyed, that I hope he enjoyed whenever things got a little too intense with him and his disciple friends.
It was in one of those intense moments at the Last Supper that Jesus attempted to reassure his friends about his upcoming departure from them. They were confused, upset, and probably half-believing what he was telling them. Leave us? Why? Leave us? To go where? Even after watching Judas sell him out as they sat around the dinner table, the disciples didn’t understand their own betrayal of him was at hand.
At that final meal, he tried to explain the intimate connection he would always have with them, and through him, to the source of all love. He said it in multiple ways, but they remained confused. It might have been easier to get it through their thick skulls if they knew about electricity.
Look Philip, he might have said, my transmission lines go directly to the spiritual power plant of love. I am the transformer through whom the spirit power flows to you. I make it safe enough for you to handle. And when you are with one another in my love, you will feel the happy shock that binds you as brothers and sisters. And of course after the resurrection, Philip learned to use the power that had been transmitted to him from Jesus: unclean spirits came out of possessed people he touched, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured. There was shock, followed by great laughter at his amazing power.
I took another look at the poles on which our power lines are carried. You know, electricity is the product of the very elemental matter of the universe, the relationship between the protons and circling electrons of the atom. You can’t see electricity, but you know it’s there. Electric power – though invisible – is quite tangible. Proof lies in the results. Flip a switch and there’s light. Plug in the kettle for your morning coffee, and the water boils. There is another kind of power that can turn us all on to one another in this room. You can’t see it, but you know it’s here. Proof lies in the results. There is genuine warmth between us when we shake one another’s hand. There is obvious kindness when we serve one another at this table or out in the parking lot or at Perkins or Dunkin Donuts within the hour. It is possible, you know, for real intimacy with Jesus and one another, even here.
When you leave, take another look at the poles alongside the road out there. I wonder if it is only a coincidence that many of them look a lot like that one up there. The miracles that those poles carry.