Monday, March 24, 2008
Sweet Jesus at the altar
Only one person signed up for the overnight vigil at the Altar of Repose and she didn't show.
A few emails back and forth between me and my fellow 'altar' coordinator. I agreed to sit the vigil between 10:30pm and 1am. He would sit until 10:30. We'd see if we could find some other folks to sign up at the Maundy Thursday service. I made a few calls and left messages. We agreed that we might have to close the church early if no one came.
I left immediately after the service on Thursday and drove to Cumberland for the monthly drum circle. I know it was weird, book-ending two of the most solemn events of the Triduum with some raucous djembe playing, but I decided, by golly, that if I was going to sit the vigil for hours on end, I might need to blow off a little steam first.
Drumming ended at 10. I raced back to church and entered through the side door. There were two people sitting in the Messiah Chapel. My friend, James, and a man I didn't know.
The big stone altar under the carved image of Jesus was covered with twinkling votive lights and tall glass vases, each with a single stem of some kind of pure white flower. In front of the chalice that contained the consecrated host, there was a red votive light. The church was chilly and quiet. The two men were sitting quietly, in silence.
My new cell phone died, so I had no idea of the time as I sat in the pew. I think hours creeped by.
I wanted to get closer to the consecrated host, so I grabbed a needlepoint kneeling cushion from the rail of the little chapel and moved it to the base of the stone altar on which the chalice was resting. I sat at the base of the altar, my back leaning against it. I closed my eyes and felt like I was in Gethsemane. But strangely, I didn't feel anguish or sadness like I usually do while sitting the Vigil. Instead, I felt a sense of calm, love, forgiveness. Love. I felt like I should be praying, but I kept saying to myself
'Lord, I ask you for nothing. I just want to love you. I just want to love you.'
There was a knock at the side door. My friend Vera arrived. It was midnight.
I went back to my seat at the base of the altar. I was in shadow, so I don't think I was distracting to the others. Eventually James and the other man left.
I sat at his feet. I leaned against the stone.
Just let me love you, Lord.
I wanted to kiss the chalice that held the host, but I was afraid I'd knock it over or get lipstick on the beautiful white embroidered cover.
So I just sat at his feet. Just let me love you, Lord. Nothing else. Just love you.
I felt a great sense of joy that I could sit like this. I knew that if I was anywhere other than my own Grace church, I'd have to sit in a pew... which is ok, too. But truly, I wanted to be as close to the Host as I could. I wanted to be right there.
Just let me love you Lord. Nothing else.
I got up. Some of the candles had gone out. I gently pulled replacements from the glass bowl they were held in. I gingerly moved the little vases aside and brought the glass votives to the front of the altar, so as not to knock over a vase or disturb the chalice. I replaced the white wax disks and carefully lit them, sliding them back into position.
Just let me love you, Lord. Nothing else.
I sat back down and lay my cheek against the cold stone of the altar. I had been weeping the whole time.
Finally, I heard Vera moving about and opened my eyes. She was standing, looking at the altar, at the carved image of Jesus, at the chalice. I stood up and walked over to her. Gave her a hug. Held her for a moment.
Then the two of us sat on the steps that lead up to the altar and started talking about what Jesus has done for us in our lives. We witnessed to the power of his love. Shared our doubts and fears. Smiled at Jesus' patience with us.
There was a knock at the side door. My friend Paul was standing there, waiting.
It was 3am.
He came in and said that he would stay until dawn.
Vera and I walked out into the cold night, empty streets, full moon. I got in my car and drove home.
Just let me love you, Lord.