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.