At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.-(John 19:41-42)
This Maundy Thursday, I had the honor of participating in part of the service. Towards the end of our Maundy Thursday service, the pastors tell the betrayal and crucifixion story and then strip the altar while the congregation sings “Where You There When They Crucified My Lord”. This year, I was invited to join in the stripping of the altar.
Now, I am a loud, opinionated person who comes from a long and proud line of loud, opinionated people, but I have always struggled with stage fright. I still remember preaching my first sermon and hardly ever making eye contact, striving to let God speak through me while pretending I wasn’t in a worship service. I was motioned to join the pastors up on the chancel, but I remained glued to my seat, with a few more encouraging nods from my senior pastor, I finally made my way up the steps to stand before the altar. I was at a loss of what to do, so I mimicked the clergy and I took the communion elements off the altar. As I stood in the room where we were placing the items from the altar, I said to myself, “I hate this”. At first, I thought I had this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach because I was scared I was going to mess up, in front of the whole congregation, no less. My senior pastor coaxed me back to the chancel with the promise that he wouldn’t let me mess up. And I am proud to say that I didn’t, but that’s terrible feeling never went away. The whole time I did it, I felt wrong, out of place, like I shouldn’t have been there.
I’ve thought a lot about what could have made me feel this way, from the fact that I’m not clergy to the fact that it had been a while since I’d been in that church. Finally, after prayer and reflection, I’ve decided it’s because I hated recrucifying Christ.
The Church began the practice of stripping the altar during Mundy Thursday services to reenact the death of Christ. The candles are extinguished and removed, because Christ is the light of the world and the world was plunged into darkness upon his death. The Elements are removed because they are a symbol of Christ’s Body and Blood. All adornment is removed, for there was no joy and beauty in the death of Christ.
The act of stripping the altar is the act of recrucifying Christ for all the congregation to see and that is something I couldn’t stomach. But, we do it all the time. Every time we raise our hand in anger, we speak malice towards one another, we allow oppression to exist unchecked, we recrucify Christ. I couldn’t accept that I was doing this act in the middle of a church service, but I am perfectly content to do this when the rest of the world does it too.
Today’s word is refuge. God is my refuge, God is my strength, and God is my help. When we are faced with the terrible acts of humanity, when we are faced with the terrible acts that we do ourselves, we can remember that Christ is our refuge. Christ was crucified by us, by humanity, but he came back. On this Holy Saturday, this day when Christ laid in the tomb and all seemed lost, we know what happens next. Christ died while we were yet sinners. And then he came back. Thanks be to God!