Maundy Thursday – The Stripping of the Altar

This is always a very meaningful evening for me. It isn’t really the religiosity of the event as much as it is a stop and stand still moment. It causes me pause; in other words. It is almost like resetting my clock. And typically, it can take my breath away.

Last night, we attended our “new” church downtown. Previously, we attended a church where we were part of a tightly knit community and where foot washing was always part of Maundy Thursday. In fact, there were entire Holy Weeks that kept me breathless when the inimitable Bishop Michael Curry preached night after night blowing the doors off the sanctuary. This guy is an enigma in a way. He is a middle aged, black preacher in the midst of the still southern, South, namely, North Carolina. He begins softly, friendly-like, standing in the middle of the aisle, never at the lectern. You become immediately engaged and curious. He oddly usually asks if he can “have a minute of your time.” I always wonder if anyone ever says, “No, I’m too short on time this evening.” Then, gradually his message builds and builds to a crescendo the likes of which you have never imagined. He is yelling. He is sweating. He is speaking so rapidly that some of his words are tripping over each other. He is swaying and racing back and forth and you are hearing exactly and precisely the words you desperately needed to hear. “How did he know?” you wonder. You are mesmerized, transfixed, wanting more, more, more. How did he know all the things I ache about and all the angst and all the guilt and all the shouldda, couldda, woulddas? He did. How did he know I needed reminders of all the good I still need to do? And he is speaking with a passion the likes of which I never experienced “BC” (before Curry). When he preached, I always cried and often I felt I spilled tears as much from his passion as I did from the content. I wondered how anyone could ever be filled with THAT much passion. Totally unforgettable.

The other magical event in our old church was the foot washing ritual. It too, always moved me to tears. In the earlier years, our dear friend and rector, Diane would wash everyone’s feet on her own. We all hesitated to bare our tootsies that were not at their best and darn it, never freshly manicured! But, my friend Kathy, encouraged me to remove my socks and come along because she said, “This is the best night of the year.” Eventually, we morphed into washing each other’s feet. It was the most humbling and moving thing to sit on a chair and have a fellow traveler kneel and wash your feet, as Jesus had. There were some years when it was hard to hold it together. The year that Tara walked up the aisle to the waiting basins was one I shall never forget. She was the tall, elegant blond whose beloved husband had died from a sudden heart attack five months prior, leaving her completely bereft.
She sat on the chair weeping and I rushed up from my pew and hugged her endlessly wanting to heal her heart. Instead, all I could do was to wash her lovely feet and pray for her sustenance.

Another most memorable foot washing event was the time when my atheist son, Peter agreed to come along as he was leaving for a trip to West Africa the next morning. He washed my feet. I washed his feet and we looked deeply into each other’s eyes with the kind of love only known between mother and son and we cried. Back in the pews, he said, “I don’t know what the hell I am doing going to this awful place, but I am going anyway. I never told him, but all I could think of was that perhaps Mary had washed her son, Jesus’ feet in the very same way. He left on Good Friday and had a life-changing trip. He left with feet washed by his mother.

So, when this year rolled around, we knew we would miss our old church, but, we felt we should continue breaking new ground with new traditions, and attend our new church.

It was different. No one was hustling around getting bowls of warm water or clean towels. This just isn’t yet the type of place where one would remove their Jimmy Choos for foot washing. But, it was still and prayerful and quiet. The organ began and was low and steady. The sermon was meaningful and spoke to me about remembering feelings from important moments in one’s life. We can remember feelings, just as we can remember events or turning points. And when the end came and we sang the hymn that repeats, “Sometimes it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble” which usually repeats in my head for days, the stripping of the altar began. This was not done by the women of the church, or any altar guild, but instead, the clergy and the acolytes began removing anything removable which included hymnals, prayer books, cushions and any brass. Finally, the crucifix was draped in black. The altar was bare. This was a life without Jesus. Gone.The church went dark. I caught my breath and sighed. I thought about all the moments of ending in my life. The births. The deaths. The losses. The gains. The bitterness. The sweetness. As always, I pictured Mary, mother of Jesus watching her son breathe his last breath. I know that heart stopping moment too well. Empathy. And then, as Jesus said, “It is done.” And, it is. We leave to head home. Once again, I have been moved. I have been moved to the center and to the place of remembering my purpose and my blessings. My feet are unwashed but they are fine. They move on.

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