Sunday, March 23, 2008

Alleluia!

So, it's Easter Day, and I live in a monastery. What is there to talk about except what has been happening during Holy Week? I'll offer you what I have this morning - a collage of memories from the Great Three Days.

MAUNDY THURSDAY:
The most pointed memories of this week come from Thursday. This is because the ceremony is new to us. We have moved almost all of it into our Refectory (Dining Room), so we have the Foot-Washing, our evening meal and a simple informal Eucharist around the tables. It's very different from a High Mass in the Church: it's simpler, more informal and more intimate. We like it a lot.

Early in the meal I turned around to get some page of the Liturgy that I needed and there was the full moon - the Paschal Moon - rising over the River. I stopped and looked at it for a while. To my left was a young woman whom we have known, along with all of her family, for many years, and she said quietly: "One of my earliest memories is of seeing the full moon through that window." And I thought: "Oh, my." I have been here for a lot of years, but I was a well-formed adult when I came here. I just thought for a while what it would be like to have always had this place in your consciousness. What does it mean to a life if one of the first things you remember is the moon through the Monastery window? I had a moment of very deep gratitude for being able to carry someone through life like that.

The foot washing was quite wonderful, as it always is. For me it is a tender moment that I am always grateful for, a chance to act out for all to see what it is like to reverse my role from authority to servant. I cherish the moment when I take those feet and bathe them - feet that belong to my brothers, to friends, to guests that I have known for years, and to people I have never met. It's a moment of remarkable intimacy.


The supper was pleasant; simple and Middle Eastern-ish, and with good conversation. The Eucharist was simple. On this particular occasion the celebrant doesn't give Communion to each person, the bread and the wine are passed from person to person around the tables. We feed each other with the body and blood of our Savior. Communion transformed the atmosphere of the whole ceremony. As we came towards the end of feeding each other, I all of a sudden realized that the light cheeriness had gone. Suddenly there was something I can only describe as a deep Presence in the room. It was in us and it was beyond us at the same time. It was powerful. Once again, the Next World had broken through into this one.

After the meal and the Eucharist were ended we went in the dark to the Church where several of the brothers slowly and formally stripped the Church of all its decoration. The rugs came out, all of the candles were blown out and removed. The altar cloth went, the sacrament had already disappeared from the Tabernacle, all of the icons on the walls were covered. Everything that says "this is a place that living people use" was taken away. We were left with a cavernous and nearly empty space. It is an experience of desolation, a stripping that is both symbolic and deep. After it was over, the congregation didn't move. The silence was profound. It felt like everyone was stunned. They probably were. An hour later there were still a dozen people in the church, as still as statues.

Then we watched through the night. This year we kept the All-Night Vigil in a room by the front door. We have usually used the Crypt under the Church, which is a wonderful place for the Watch, but this year the heat isn't functioning down there so we needed an alternative spot. I never even thought about one of the great changes that made: one of our friends who is wheel-chair bound has not been able to take part in the Vigil for many years because of stairs. This year she could. I kept the Watch between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. and spent a good deal of the time in gratitude for what our accessibility project has made possible.

GOOD FRIDAY:
The Adoration of the Cross; once again, this is where I get choked up. That great long line of people coming to the foot of the Cross. All those people, so many of whose lives I have shared for a long time, coming to our plain wooden cross to kneel or to stand before it, to kiss it or to touch it or to press it to their heads, or even, in one case, to wrap themselves around it. How can one do that with such a symbol? How can one not do it?

The reading of St John's Passion: we have six people scattered around the Church who take the roles of the people in the Bible story of Christ's death. The old, familiar story, the details unfolding little by little once again. People shouting: "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!", and then pausing ever so slightly as it strikes them what they have just said.

The quiet of the day. It doesn't seem right to talk much on Good Friday.

And, of course, EASTER MORNING. The place was packed, just like Christmas. But this is a completely different crowd from Christmas. The Christmas midnight mass attracts a huge variety of people, many of whom will not be found in a church until the next Christmas. We are one of the places in this county where such people feel comfortable and know they will be welcomed. It's a great ministry.

But no one with a passing interest in religion gets up to be here at 5:45 a.m. on Easter. This crowd are the core believers: the ones who know that liturgy truly changes your life and come here to be changed. We lit the fire, we listened to all the good old stories from the Hebrew scriptures - the Creation, the Flood, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Crossing of the Dead Sea,the Valley of Dry Bones. And as the stories ended the sun rose over the hills beyond the River and we paused for a moment and gazed at that ancient and primary symbol of the Resurrection of Christ - the rising sun (or Son, as some of the ancient texts have it).

When we renew our Baptismal vows we bless a large bowl of water and we all get to splash in it, and of course some of us are more vigorous splashers than others. My sharpest memory of the Vigil is the feel of cold water over my head, refreshing me, and reminding me of that big tank I was baptised in more than 50 years ago.

And we rang bells, and we shouted "Christ is Risen" and we sang "Jesus Christ is Risen Today". And we went to breakfast, everyone full of joy, every one with their own memories of these three days, everyone changed in their own way. These are the most powerful three days in the year around here, and it is such a privilege to share them with all of those who come to be touched and transformed along with us.

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