Maundy Thursday evening, I attended my church’s simple service in the fellowship area. We sat around tables, prayed and sang, meditated on Jesus’ humility in washing his disciples’ feet, and observed a brief commemoration of the bread and wine shared by Jesus with his friends that grievous night. Afterwards, we filed into the sanctuary.
I didn’t know what to expect for this part. “The stripping of the altar,” the bulletin read. No lights were on, not even a candle. The dusk of the day through the opaque glass ceiling over our chancel area yielded just enough light to see, but all the color had drained from this familiar worship space, leaving nothing but grays.
Natalia read Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As she read, Julie, Barb, and Dawn rose from the front seats and one by one removed the symbolic objects from the table. On Sunday mornings, Julie is often the one who processes our lovely baptismal bowl to the front at the time of confession. This time, she lifted the font from its stand and walked it out. I was not prepared for how this would feel to me. It was horrifying.
Then the large platter, ordinarily mounded with communion bread, now empty, was carried out. Then the chalice. Then the baptismal pitcher. Then—no, not that too!—the cross from its stand. Gone.
Even as Natalia got to the defiantly hopeful parts of the psalm—“From you comes my praise in the great assembly’’—the three women were taking hold of a loop of fabric, the great black swath that during Lent has draped the “tree” that supports the roof over our chancel. They pulled and pulled and a flowing cascade of black slipped from the branches of our tree. When the long ends came free, the whole thing fluttered down like grief. They swagged it onto their shoulders, a ghostly cross, and marched it out.
We were left with that bare metal tree in shadows. I stared at the steel beams and trusses of our worship space. Nothing left but the structures, Ezekiel’s dry bones.
In the wisdom of the church, we are called to spend the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning dwelling in this bare, shadowy, empty place. But how, exactly, do we sustain that?
On Good Friday, we might attend a service in which we meditate on the cross, feel sorrow for our sins, look upon the face of Christ and marvel at his love. But then: what? Most of us are cut loose until—if we’re lucky—Easter Vigil on Saturday evening or, more likely, the festive colors of Easter morning. It has always bothered me that on Holy Saturday we are left to our own devotional devices. What are some ways to get from Friday to Sunday without finding ourselves so caught up in regular tasks that we lose the continuity of this observance?
I’ve written for this blog since November of 2011. Since I always post on Saturdays, my posts have landed on Holy Saturday three times before. This is the fourth. In an effort to find appropriate topics for this day, I’ve written about the harrowing of hell and about Joseph of Arimathea.
In my first Holy Saturday post, in 2012, I complained (mildly) that we need some practices to observe on this day. I wrote about the two strangely mismatched impulses of the day we find in the scriptural accounts: dormancy or rest (because it was the Sabbath) and horrified grief (the stunned disciples’ state of mind). Mostly in response to the former, some branches of the church have declared Saturday the Great Silence. There are no services during the day, or if there are, they are simple prayer services. No mass or Eucharist, of course. For those of us who are hopelessly task-oriented, though, more guidance would be helpful. So for this post, I have devised some suggestions for personal or family prayer times and practices. I have in mind people who are unable (for whatever reason) to attend an Easter Vigil. I hope you find this useful. And please feel free to add ideas in the comments.
Saturday morning prayer
Here we remember those for whom grief is raw and wounds are fresh. As able, put into the suggested prayer categories the names of specific people you know.
Opening: Christ, our Redeemer, your crucified body was laid in the tomb and you entered into death for our sake. Let us find you there, our companion and friend, in all our deepest sorrows and griefs, so that we will never be alone in the darkness.
Read: Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24; Ezekiel 37:1-3
Prayers: those who are raw from the funeral, those traumatized by events they have witnessed, recently divorced or separated, stunned by a new and terrifying diagnosis, fallen into financial trouble, rejected by their families and friends, victimized by state-sponsored cruelty or random violence
Suggested listening or singing:
Closing: Lord’s Prayer
Here we remember those who live with grief, pain, trouble, and deprivation for the long term.
Opening: Christ, our Firstfruits, you are the seed planted so that we might rise imperishable. As we wait in this long Saturday between death and new life, grant us patience and endurance, and send angels to minister to us so that we might be faithful until the final day.
Read: Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16; Ezekiel 37:4-8
Prayers: widows and widowers, children who have lost parents, parents who have lost children to illness or violence, those living with mental illness or caring for those who are, struggling with debt, living in fear of their governments or neighbors, refugees, those with chronic illness, those who are weary from their work, those discouraged working for peace and justice that never seems to come, those who are lonely and friendless, those who live every day with racism, prejudice, or harassment.
Suggested listening or singing: Wendell Kimbrough, “Draw Near (Psalm 69)”
or “What Wondrous Love” vs. 2, “When I was sinking down.”
Conclude: Lord’s Prayer
Consider choosing one or two of these actions to perform, prayerfully and mindfully.
- Practice a long time of silence.
- Visit the graves of loved ones.
- If your church is open, sit in the empty sanctuary to pray.
- If you are a gardener, today is a good day to perform an early spring task that prepares for new life.
- burn last year’s dried remains of hardy perennial grasses (carefully!)
- plant seeds (indoors in cold climes) and reflect on John 12:24
- plant potatoes (Good Friday is the traditional day for that in some latitudes)
- Take down for the day any crosses or other Christian symbols in your home (much like stripping the altar at church).
- Buy some beeswax candles to use during evening prayer (traditionally used at Easter Vigil).
- Donate money to an organization that helps poor people or refugees, in imitation of Joseph and Nicodemus, who used their place of privilege to care for Jesus’ body.
- If you have a tendency to avoid your own pain, take time to sit with it today. Journal about your griefs, sorrows, and failures. Hand them all over to Jesus.
- If you feel your pain all too keenly, imagine laying it down in the tomb with Jesus. Imagine Jesus’ quiet companionship with you in your dark places. Perhaps allow yourself a restful nap, remembering as you rise that Christ lifts you up.
- If you have children afoot, try these activities:
- Decorate construction paper butterflies with the word “Alleluia” on them. No one is allowed to say the word until tomorrow! “Bury” the butterflies in a box. On Easter morning, open the box and fling the butterflies everywhere, saying “Alleluia” as much as you like.
- Boil and decorate eggs with Christian symbols. This is a good time to talk with kids about things other than bunnies and flowers. On Easter morning, knock eggs with another person and exchange words: “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia” Peel your now-cracked eggs and eat for breakfast.
Evening prayer (perhaps at table)
Here we remember people facing endings, then turn in hope toward the morning. Some language here is adapted from the Exsultet, the traditional Easter Vigil liturgy. (There is quite a bit of business about bees and candles and despoiling the Egyptians that I left out. But the business about bees emphasizes how the candles, like the sacramental bread and wine, come from nature and human craft—hence the tradition of beeswax candles.)
Opening: Christ, Lord of all, you invite us into your death so that we might arise with you into new life. Abide with us now as we await the coming of the third day, that we might be strengthened in faith and hope.
light a candle (preferably beeswax, just for tradition’s sake)
Read: Psalm 118:17-24; Ezekiel 37:9-14
Prayers: those who are dying, those who sit vigil with the dying, those in treatment for terminal illness, those who must to leave home or family behind, those facing difficult transitions.
Listening or singing: Wendell Kimbrough, “Eternal Weight of Glory”
or “What Wondrous Love” vs. 3-4, “To God and to the lamb” and “And when from death I’m free.”
Let us now rejoice with the angels of heaven and the creatures of earth, made beautiful by the splendor of God’s redemption. Let us be glad with the church of all times and places as we anticipate the holy celebration of the Resurrection morning.
This is the night in which the children of Israel were led out of Egypt and passed through the Red Sea. This is the night in which God illumined the darkness with a pillar of light. This is the night that restores us to grace, along with all the world’s believers, and defeats the darkness of sin. This is the night in which Christ destroys the chains of death and gains victory over hell.
O God, how wonderful is your kindness. How fathomless is your sacrificial love, for you have redeemed us in the work of Christ.
Now put to flight all wickedness, cleanse us from our sins. Lift up the downtrodden, cast down the proud. Restore innocence to the fallen and gladness to the sorrowful. Drive away hatred, bring concord, let empires bow to your justice. Restore your creation to flourishing life. [you might add here particular things on your heart]
Let the light of this candle mingle with the lights of heaven, anticipating that first star of morning, the star of Christ that will never set.
Preserve us now, and all your saints. We pray in the name of the one who lives and reigns, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Blessed Easter to all!
Photo credit: Isle of Iona, Alison Adam
Readings based on lectionary found here.