The Holy Week tradition that is the most meaningful for me is the stripping of the altar and sanctuary of the church at the end of the liturgy on Maundy* Thursday. As the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and Psalm 22 are read, anything that can be carried out of the worship space is removed, leaving the church stripped completely bare, in darkness and quiet. Those of you who know me probably won’t be surprised that I’ve always preferred the church building like this. Even as a child, it always felt so right, so honest. No decoration, no performance — just the building as it is, wood and stone, flesh and bone.
As I was reflecting on this this morning, I realized that this is exactly what we’ve been experiencing the past month as the church and as a society. All of the external ‘stuff’ has been taken away from us — whether that’s the buildings and choirs and committees of the Church or our hobbies, shopping trips, drop-off-and-pick-up, and nights on the town as people. It’s just us as we are.
Tonight, in the Garden, Jesus will find himself similarly alone with just himself. The triumph of Palm Sunday a distant memory, rejected by the powers that be, betrayed by a friend, and now abandoned by his disciples’ inability to stay awake and keep watch, Jesus sits alone. Utterly alone.
This is Jesus’ Dark Night.
St. John of the Cross‘ teaching of the Dark Night of the Soul is helpful here. Remember that the dark night is not a punishment or even a ‘test’ that we pass or fail, but a grace in disguise. It takes away what is unnecessary to give our heart the freedom to breathe and move and grow in love for God.
It is these times when we see who and what we are when all the distractions and ornaments are taken away. Who are we underneath all the makeup? Under the mask? Without the performance? Will we reach out? Or will we retreat in?
For Jesus, alone in the Garden, what’s left is faith and trust. “I don’t want this, I’m not sure I can handle this, but your will be done.” What’s left is the unflinching knowledge, even in the midst of the loneliness and abandonment that cry out within him, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” that God is his Father: “My Father, if it is possible….” “My Father…your will be done.” Against all odds, what’s left for the man Jesus, when all is taken from him, is communion with God.
And, so on this Thursday of Holy Week, when we are given the new commandment to love one another, and on this Thursday in particular, when everything is stripped away and there’s nowhere to hide, we too are being asked who we are underneath the makeup, the mask, the performance.
What does the church look like without the trappings of our buildings and services? We are learning.
And what do we as human persons look like when everything external has been stripped away, leaving us with, well, us? Hopefully we’re learning this too. I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal’s remark, that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I wonder how many of us are facing this for the first time. As the weeks of physical distancing wear on, what happens when there’s nothing left to binge? No new recipe to try? Nothing left to distract us from ourselves? It will be interesting to find out.
O Lord, who are like us in every way: As you found faith, trust, and communion with your Father when you were alone in the Garden, bless us and meet us in our loneliness and in the nakedness of this moment. May this time be for our salvation, healing, and freedom. Amen.
* ‘Maundy’ is an Anglicization of the Latin mandatum, ‘commandment’, so the name Maundy Thursday refers to the ‘new commandment’ Jesus gives his disciples: to love one another.