I almost didn't go to the Maundy Thursday service last night. I was tired. I wanted a warm shower, a DVD, and bed. But the tug of Holy Week I mentioned in my previous post was too strong, and Maundy Thursday liturgy is my second favorite in the Church Year (Easter Vigil is number one).

The highlight, if that's the appropriate term, of this service for me is the stripping of the altar. It seems ironic that such a heart-wrenching act would be the part I look forward to. Yet, it has always pulled me into it, especially in my active ministry when I was the one who presided over it. Some of it goes too deep to be articulated in words. But as I sat in the congregation last night, an unaccustomed view for me, I thought about it and about the larger stripping of the Church that I think, and hope, is going on.

The stripping of the altar is an act of grief, a symbol of loss and mourning. And if we can see what's happening in the Church and Christianity today as a similar act, perhaps we may understand the process of what has to happen in order to get to the other side of our distress.

We're being laid bare. All the layers of "stuff" we've added to our understanding of what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus meant and means is being painfully stripped from us. If you've read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, you may remember Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He's a persnickety little pain-in-the-neck who makes all his fellow travelers miserable. One morning he awakes to find he's covered with a horrible dragon skin. No matter how he struggles, he can't get rid of it. Aslan the Lion appears and tells him that the only way is to have it pulled off bit by bit. With his sharp claws, Aslan helps Eustace strip off the terrible covering that has adhered to him. The process is excruciatingly painful and when the last piece has been wrenched off, Eustace's skin is raw and red. Aslan tells him to dip himself in a refreshing, cooling pool and as he does so, he begins to recognize his better self that was underneath the dragon skin.

No analogy can be pushed too far, yet I believe the Church and Christianity can learn from Eustace's experience. Perhaps not all our accretions are bad, but in order to discern which are the good ones and which are the bad, we may need to submit the Church and Christianity to the same painful process. Yes, it hurts. But when we have allowed the accretions to be stripped off, we can bathe in a refreshing, cooling, cleansing pool and begin to recognize the better part of ourselves as the people of God who follow in the way of Jesus.

There's something beautiful about the bare altar, the empty aumbry, and the darkened vigil light. They allow us to see the unadorned structure on which the rest is built. Let's not be in too much of a hurry to cover it up. Sometimes less is more.


O still, small voice of calm

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

John Whittier, 1872

It's Holy Week, again, the first since I officially retired. There's a delicious freedom in not being responsible for multiple services and marathon sermon preparation this year. But the old tug that this time has always exerted on me is still present, though in different ways. I feel as if I've stepped back from the experience, kind of like one steps back from an impressionistic painting in order to see the full picture, rather than just the individual brush strokes and dots that go into its creation. There's certainly a deep sense of participation when one is the Celebrant of this unique seven days' events--saying the words of consecration over bread and wine, washing the feet of parishioners with whom one has not shared anything more intimate than a handshake at the door, stripping the altar, throwing the black veil over the altar cross and turning the lights out.

But there's something just as powerful in being a step or two removed from being in the center this time around. And I find that distance helpful as I listen to the cri de coeur--the heart cry-- of the Anglican community, all parts of it, known and unknown, rising to an even louder pitch, at least it seems so to me, as we approach this holiest of all span of days. Perhaps as we retrace the anguished steps of Jesus through his final attempts to bring humankind back to its senses, we struggle for some way to express our angst that somewhere along the way we've all taken leave of our senses. We're all trying to find where to place our feet where the ground won't crumble underneath them and in our stumbling we cry out against our pain and against our own clumsiness. If only there were clearer road signs that we could confidently follow, knowing they'd bring us where we want and need to be.

If ever the Church did something right, it was in establishing Holy Week and its observances as the way to Easter. It's inevitable that we will stumble and curse our awkwardness, but the promise is that if, with God's help, we keep getting up again we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is that along with the roughness of what's underfoot is the distracting howling of strange beasts and the cackling of other hysterical creatures dinning in our ears as we plow onward. Somewhere in the cacophony we suspect there are some voices that are giving us the right directions, but it's hard to discern them through the uproar. Our spiritual GPS is finding it hard to connect with the right signal.

As I reflected on some of this, I was reminded of the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind." I confess that the masculine language of the first phrase has been daunting for me, but the rest of the poetry has always brought peace when there was none. Above are a couple of the verses that have been especially helpful. And as I further reflected on this, I thought of something that Phyllis Tickle has written in her book The Great Emergence which I'm reading right now.

She addresses this "mighty upheaval" that all of Christianity, as well as other faith traditions, is experiencing. What I like about her approach is that she offers a "still, small voice of calm" amid the clamor. Each time that these hinge times, as she terms them, occur--usually about every 500 years, three things have always resulted:

  • A new more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge.

  • The organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.

  • Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread--and been spread--dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity's reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.

What could be more appropriate for our reflection in this Holy Week, in the midst of our distress? The traces of death to resurrection are clearly seen in this voice of calm. As we walk again the path to the cross, with all its pain and noisy shouting, we can take hope that this earthquake, wind, and fire that we now experience contains within it the voice of calm that will point us in the right direction.