Stripping the Altar
Last year, I wrote this piece during Holy Week after attending a Maundy Thursday service. It was a hard week for me, filled with a lot of emotional turmoil. In an effort to find community, I went to a church service hosted by a friend, bringing a chocolate cream pie which met a tragic end all over the interior of my car.
This year, I've prepared for the season by spending some time with the resurrection story and writing meditations which paired with Alicia Heater's lovely art. I've realized that my sorrow, my wondering, my anxiety are all very much at home in Holy Week and the Easter season.
I've spoken to many people who are struggling with Easter this year. Certainly we are Easter people, and we celebrate the resurrection. But being Easter people, I'm realizing, is about more than just celebrating, it is about long, dark nights wondering what will happen. It is about the morning which rises with the knowledge that everything we've hoped for has been snatched from us. It is about huddling in a locked room in fear, sharing in grief. It is about not recognizing the one we love, standing right in front of us.
If any of this sounds like your Holy Week, I hope you'll find a home in these words.
I went to church last night, for the first time since Advent. We have a cathedral in my town, which sits high on a hill. Those who built it wanted the highest point of the city to be the spire of a church.
It is a respectable cathedral, cold and weighty.
My liturgy is rusty, it’s been so long since I’ve flipped the pages of the prayer book, and I stumble over the words.
Sometimes, I am just silent.
This year, Holy Week is the bearer of news of transition. I respond to transition, usually, with exuberance or weeping. Sometimes, both.
I can’t stop the tears as they fall during the reading of the Old Testament passage. The reader tells us the commandment of the Lord, that a family which is too small to have a lamb on their own should join with a close neighbor.
I am that small family. But I don’t know who I would turn to, as a close neighbor.
The time for the Eucharist draws near. This church has a high altar and a long aisle to walk before I come to kneel. I am conscious of every footfall, and of every bride who has walked this same path.
I kneel at the rail, hands outstretched, and the priest presses Jesus’ Body into them. I catch the faintest scent of lavender. I sip the wine, practicing that delicate dance between overflowing and not getting any.
I wanted the service to be healing, a cup of cool water turning slowly into wine. I wanted the heaviness of the cathedral to steady my nerves. I wanted to be able to breathe deeply under high ceilings.
Outside, the rain poured. I could hear the sound, light on the roof.
It’s been wet here, lately.
There is no miraculous formula for healing. There is nothing that cures the pain, or removes the sting all at once.
I watch the altar guild remove all of the trappings, the candlesticks and the cloths. They are stripping the altar, getting ready to mourn all day on Good Friday.
I feel guilty that my tears are not falling because I am struck by how much Jesus loves me, but because I feel like that altar, wondering why she’s being stripped. I feel like Martha, huddled with her sister Mary, watching her brother die and wondering why Jesus hasn’t come in response to her cries for help.
Martha knew about resurrection, but she didn’t know what it would look like. She still wept out of her broken heart.
I am right there with her, today.