Our parish gathers at 5:30 in the parish hall for a meal together. A veritable banquet of food is set out. Our rector gathers us, reminding us what Maundy Thursday means in the Church: an invitation to Eucharist, a call to love one another, and a call to pray with Christ through this evening.
Then we share a meal together. The parish hall is loud and boisterous, as folks chat in this parish of people who truly care about each other and enjoy each other's company.
At 6:30, we are called to move into the nave. Having shared the Liturgy of the Word in the parish hall, we move into the Eucharist with Hymn #329 ["Now, my tongue, the mystery telling..."]. Then it's straight into Eucharistic Prayer A.
There is a goodly crowd tonight -- the largest I remember seeing in our parish for a Maundy Thursday service. Strangely, tonight it's the front pews that are crowded. The back rows are empty. Perhaps our parish is maturing. Perhaps more people want to be near the cross and the altar. I do not know.
For me, the Eucharist moves too quickly. I know what this liturgy tells us. I know we are commemorating the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, his friends. And I know what's going to come afterwards: He's going to the Mount of Olives to pray, asking his friends to stay and pray with him a while. And then he's going to be betrayed. And then the crucifixion will come tomorrow--another innocent man murdered for no just reason.
Tonight, I just want to dwell with the meal, the fellowship. But our liturgy takes me into the heart of Maundy Thursday.
Like so many other parishes, our service ends with the lights dimming ... and then the "stripping of the altar." It's not just the altar that is stripped. It's not just the vestments and paraments and candles and Eucharistic elements that are removed. No, the whole church is stripped of every last symbol of hope.
You readers of this blog know how much I treasure my ministry as crucifer, and you have heard some of my stories about how bearing the processional cross matters to me. You've heard how joyfully I bear it in ordinary times, in baptisms, and how fiercely in heart-breaking funerals.
This week, our altar guild asked me to remove the torches and processional cross from the back of the nave during this service. I was honored to be asked, because these are objects that are very dear to my heart as an acolyte and crucifer.
In the quiet and nearly dark church, I moved to the rear of the nave, removed the torches, processed them forward ... to the altar .. and into the sacristy. With people kneeling in the darkened nave, I felt powerfully what it meant to remove those torches -- "the light of Christ" -- now extinguished and removed.
Then I moved quietly back to the rear of the nave. I once again lifted our massively heavy processional cross which I have so often carried in triumphant procession, always lifting it as high as I could. But not tonight. Tonight, I moved it tenderly out of its stand. I didn't heft it high in procession. I carried it low ... slow ... and tenderly out of the nave, through the chancel, and into the sacristy. ... And it broke my heart. Every other time I have carried that cross as crucifer, I have carried it boldly as a sign of hope -- leading the procession of choir and clergy. Tonight, I carried it low, in near-darkness, removing it from our our sacred space. Removing it from our hopes and our fierce faith. I have seldom felt more mournful as I made that impossibly long trek from the back of the nave into the sacristy with that now-shrouded cross. This cross which I generally bear as a sign of hope ... I now carried in mourning and with a deep sense of loss and grief.
I didn't time any of this. But the Altar Guild members were scurrying around, stripping off all the paraments, Eucharistic vessels, altar cloths. I think I -- carrying that cross low, not high aloft -- carried the very last vestige of "Church" out of our church tonight. It felt meet and right so to do.
Then I went back to my pew in the darkness and knelt in silence, trying again -- as I do every Maundy Thursday -- to wrap my heart and soul around the events two millenia ago. Trying to grasp what Jesus' friends must have experienced. Trying to imagine what Jesus experienced, praying alone in that garden.
Praying in a dark, stripped-bare church.
And so the Triduum begins for me. I pray it will be a holy time for me and for you ... and for all God's children.