a priest's musings on the journey

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Perspectives: Stripping the Altar

For me the triduum and the Easter Vigil are the highlights of the liturgical year. We begin this journey with Christ in the Upper Room, with the disciples at table with our Lord. It is in the intimacy of this moment that Jesus gives us a new commandment to love one another as he loves us. In order to give us an example of what love looks like, Jesus takes the role of the servant and washes disciples' feet. Although we re-enact this ritually during the Maundy Thursday liturgy, the point was not to follow him in washing feet (although in some traditions footwashing has a sacramental like quality); rather, we are called to follow God's way of love that offers itself in selflessness and sacrifice. Jesus continued to teach us how to live this commandment of loving by giving Himself to us in a new and special way. He took bread and wine and with words that surely must have stupified the disciples, assured us that when we gathered together in remembrance of him with bread and wine, that he would be present with us. The Holy Thursday liturgy begins with a hint of celebration as we give thanks for the institution of the Holy Eucharist. We get a break from the lenten colors and vest with white. In some places the bells which have been silent throughout Lent are rung for a brief moment. Our hearts are filled with the gift of peace that Christ promised to give us: that peace which the world can not give.

But as the drama of the evening unfolds, our celebration quickly turns to sorrow and despair. We remember that even as Christ was giving the gift of the Holy Eucharist to the church, that the Evil One was entering the heart of one who would betray Christ and refuse the love that He offered. Before that night had ended, the betrayer delivered Jesus into the hands of the authorities who arrested him and led him to be interrigated as a criminal. The Maundy Thursday liturgy ends with a ritual re-membrance of this event. The altar and sanctuary is stripped of all ornamentation. The Reserved Sacrament has already been removed, and the Fire, representing the Presence of God, has been extinguished. The crosses which can not be removed are veiled in black. The words from Psalm 22 are read, and we are faced with the image of Jesus, stripped and vulnerable; betrayed and rejected.

Tonight I knelt in the darkness, taking in the silent emptiness. With the Reserved Sacrament removed and the Presence Light extinguished, I was overwhelmed with a sense of void and lonliness. For a moment I allowed myself to be aware of how it would feel to be separated from God's Presence. Christ had been taken away: here I knelt alone. My thoughts turned inward, and I contemplated my culpability in the stripping of Jesus. How many times had I been the betrayer? How many times had I placed myself in an empty darkness by turning away from the Love of God and refusing to walk in the way of servanthood? How many times had I oppressed Christ by turning a deaf ear to the cries of the poor and suffering? What do I need to strip away from own heart in order to be able to more fully experience the coming resurrection?

Tommorow is a day of fasting; a day to allow the Holy Spirit to complete the work that was begun on Ash Wednesday; a day to allow those parts of me which need to die, to die on the Cross with Christ, and to be laid in the tomb with him, in the hopes of being transformed and raised to new life on Easter.

But in this moment, we wait in the silent darkness.
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 5:54 PM


Thank you, brother Rob.

The quality of the silence was profound as it descended on us at St. Mary's House, and as we stripped the altar and left.

There is no other silence like it.
Blogger Jane R, at 6:35 PM  
I'm new to the Episcopal faith, and this was my first Maundy Thursday service. Always before, I'd approached the week before Easter with the end - the resurrection- in mind. This time I left the service feeling alone and even frightened. On Easter Sunday morning my eyes raced to the altar as I entered the church, and I breathed a real sigh of relief when I saw the cross with lilies instead of covered in a black veil. I was so thankful to once again be able to bow to our risen Lord!
Anonymous Cindy, at 8:28 AM  
Me too... but I need to experience the fright and the anguish of Thursday, Friday,and Saturday, becuase that is real life, and I need to know God is there as well... In fact, I am very gateful that God is in the pain and the death as much as God is in the Resurrection and the New Life. Thanks be to God!
Blogger PadreRob+, at 2:53 PM  
Your blog is fascinating!
Blogger John the organist, at 4:20 PM  

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