Today is Maundy Thursday, and I miss the liturgy I cannot attend tonight, in the midst of quarantine. It is one of the most dramatic liturgies of the whole year. The readings and psalms of the Eucharist revolve around the institution of the Eucharist, that is, the Last Supper when Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples and told them to break bread and drink wine together in remembrance of him.
After which he was arrested by the Temple police and interrogated by the priestly authorities, and turned over to the Romans as a terrorist the following morning.
All four of the Gospels tell slightly different accounts of Jesus’ Passion, but as is usually the case, Mark, Matthew, and Luke are in general agreement, while John has a completely different take. John depicts Jesus striding forth into the torchlight of a troop of armed soldiers to confront Judas, practically holding out his hands for the cuffs. But the other three Gospels say that after the Passover meal, Jesus requested some private time, accompanied by his three closest friends, Peter, James, and John, and holed up in a garden called Gethsemane to pray and come very, very close to backing out.
It’s clear that Jesus came to Jerusalem intending to provoke a confrontation. It’s clear that he expected that confrontation to end in some way with his own death. Now that he’s on the brink of that final commitment, he is mortally, humanly afraid. And he is deeply disappointed that his friends, instead of praying with him and bearing witness to him, fall asleep while he prays.
In my churches’ tradition, this vigil in the garden is acted out with great ceremony. A piece of consecrated Bread is kept aside from the Eucharist and wrapped up, together with some of the wine. It is carried in procession, with an ancient plainsong hymn, to a side chapel decorated like a garden, where it will be set up in a position of honor and left overnight.
Once the Bread and Wine have been removed, a terrible and shocking thing happens. All of the decorations and furnishings of the altar, the chancel, the most honored place in the church building, are removed. The priest and the acolytes strip down to their cassocks and begin to carry out the books, the candlesticks, the censer. The flowers, the frontal, the fair linens are taken off the altar, revealing the bare stone. Even the rugs are rolled up and the kneeling cushions taken away. Most shocking of all, the great hanging lamp which reminds visitors of the sacramental presence of Christ is lowered from the vault and put out, not to be rekindled till the Easter Vigil. While this takes place, Psalm 22 is recited or sung: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Walking out of the bare, dimly lit chancel of a church after singing that psalm over and over is, indeed, like walking away from a naked body lying on the ground, vulnerable and helpless. Walking into the Chapel of Repose, where the sacramental body of Christ is kept, where candles are still burning and the air smells of incense and flowers, is a blessed relief, a reminder that the story is not over yet.
The ancient tradition of the Church is that we do not leave Jesus alone in the garden. His closest friends let him down, but his living friends and followers are going to make up for that. Someone must be in the chapel all night, watching and praying. When I was a child, we did in fact leave the church doors unlocked all night and people could come and go. There was usually a sign-up sheet and people would write their names in for an hour or two. Nowadays few if any churches do this, for security reasons; people may remain to pray on Maundy Thursday or come in early on Good Friday, but no one remains through the night.
I don’t remember exactly how we decided on this, but one year in my early twenties, I and two friends at my church decided that we would stay and keep vigil all night. We could take turns easily enough; there would always be at least one person in the chapel while another could come or go and the third could kip on the couch in the priest’s office, which was cold but otherwise comfy.
It was quite cold in the church that night; I wore a striped shawl that had been my mother’s, handmade in Peru. I spent much of that night sitting cross-legged on the chapel floor, the shawl forming a small tent around me, reading the Revelations of Julian of Norwich and finally finishing the text, which I had been grappling with for a couple years, and praying, deeply. In the silence, in the cold, with the presence of Walt or Tim beside me, the rest of the church dim. I think that our rector came over once in the wee hours to make sure we were all right, and then again early in the morning, but after it got light, to relieve us. Tim and I were both still in the choir at that time, and Walt was our head acolyte, so instead of going home to sleep all day after our vigil, we all suited up for the Good Friday liturgy at noon.
It was, until my initiation with Antinous, perhaps the profoundest spiritual experience I had had. To be alone with my god, with two dear friends who were as committed as I was, and with the words of a spiritual teacher who has never left me, beloved Julian of Norwich. I was young and healthy and possessed of a singleness of heart that I lost somewhere along the way, and I entered into something vast and loving.
I hope that this time next year, churches will be open again, the virus will be a memory, and I will attend this evening’s liturgy and stay afterward, in the garden, to watch and pray as long as I can stay awake.