"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Vigil at the Altar of Repose

Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me."          ~Matthew 26:38

This year, my parish again provided the opportunity to take part in a "vigil at the altar of repose".  In this centuries-old tradition, the bread and wine for the Holy Communion on Good Friday are consecrated at the Maundy Thursday liturgy, since there is no celebration of the Eucharist on Good Friday.  The consecrated Sacrament is then placed somewhere apart from the main altar.  At this "altar of repose", parishioners are invited to keep vigil, to keep watch for one hour or more with the Lord, present in the Sacrament.

Our "altar" was in the parish hall.  There is a slightly raised platform set into the wall at the far end of the hall, which houses a stained glass window from the sanctuary of the original 19th-century building, as well as some other woodwork from that church.  Here several members of the parish had brought in potted plants, shrubs, and candle lanterns, to create a garden atmosphere.  The Sacrament was placed on a small table in the center of this area, and covered with a white linen cloth.  There was a sign-up sheet in the parish hall, on which individuals could mark down an hour in which to keep vigil, from the end of the service on the evening of Maundy Thursday, through to 12 o'clock noon on Good Friday.

I signed up for an early morning hour.  With family responsibilities, it made the most sense for me to take the 6 a.m. to 7 a.m slot.  Still, I kind of felt like I was cheating, since I prefer to be up and about in the early morning anyway, as opposed to a late night hour when, no doubt, I would find myself struggling with Peter, James, and John to keep my heavy eyes open.  It didn't help that I was late.  And I had my morning mug of coffee with me.  So, yeah, talk about sacrificial devotion.

One of the songs from the previous evening's service was the Taize chant "Stay With Me".  I was singing it as I settled in for my vigil.  The first few times through, for some reason, I was rather absent-mindedly ascribing the words to the apostles.  Perhaps I was confusing the chant with the hymn "Abide With Me", and the petition of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, as they urge the Lord to stay with them for the evening.  Of course, that episode is not the inspiration for the Taize chant.  The words are those of our Lord in the garden -- a sober reminder of the agony of soul that, as true man, He willingly endured for our sake.

The hour passed quickly -- too quickly, actually.  Part of the reason, I think, was that it took a while for me to settle in and quiet my spirit.  I was late arriving, as I said.  When I did get there, I needed to use the restroom.  Then I went to get a light for the several candles scattered around the altar, as it was still quite dark out.  During this early busy-ness, as I went several times to and from the altar, I felt as if I was letting Jesus down.  Believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, I felt especially conscious of His presence, and also of the fact that I was not duly attending to Him.  All He asked was that I sit and keep watch with Him there in the garden for one hour, but I seemed unable to fully grant even this small request.  The experience kindled in me a desire to cultivate a more conscious awareness of the presence of Christ in my daily life.  For though I believe Him to be specially present in the Sacrament, I believe also His word to the disciples: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  And as the Psalmist said, "Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?"  Truly, God is ever present, irradiating all of creation, if I would but open the eyes of faith to behold Him.  Incidentally, it is interesting to me that a very catholic concept (that of the Real Presence) has reawakened in me a longing for that most evangelical spiritual reality, the personal and ever present friendship of Jesus.

Now, of course, is Eastertide.  And as John Chrysostom adjured me at the Great Vigil of Easter, this is not the time to lament my own unworthiness, but to rejoice in His victory.  Too soon though, Ascension Day will be here.  And then, even as we wonder at His glory, we will indeed be the ones pleading, "Lord, stay with us."



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