Soon I will go, as so many will, to a celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It is good to be pray and listen and be tutored in the context of community – especially on this night of meal and footwashing, and more. But there is something about the time when the community continues its prayer after the Mass this night that has always been particularly sacred to me.
In this silent vigil, when all the hymns have been sung: We are together, and we are separate. We are individual, and we are community. We are sad, and we are happy. We are pleading, and we are thanking. We are fearful, and we are at peace. We are vulnerable, and we are sheltered. We are praying, and we are crying. We are alone, and we are together. Whatever makes up the ‘now’ for each member of the ‘we’ that stays in silent prayer after the liturgy, there is a comaraderie in this vigil.
Years back I would take this time to be with the last discourse of the Johannine Gospel – John 14-17. I would listen for what particularly seemed to be a word for me to hear as I read through it slowly. At times I have replayed the passion narrative imaginatively from the meal through the garden and the arrest. I have tried to be with the Beloved One, as I’d listen for the way the Beloved One wanted to be with me. Whatever the ‘content’ of the time – it inevitably moves just to silence and a vigil of presence. And I will inevitably notice the other pray-ers and vigil-keepers, wondering about their journeys and how this Holy Week finds them; and I will pray for them.
In the Eucharist we will have celebrated, we will have remembered that somehow Jesus has decided to put all of who he is in the hands of the disciples who soon abandon him, betray him, deny him, or just run in fear leaving him in isolation. (The Tenebrae service I attended last night highlights this in the dousing of the 12 candles and the darkening of the worship space, in representation of the leaving of the disciples.) In utter contrast, Jesus decides to always be with them. He does not abandon them — he abandons himself, surrenders himself, to them (and to us) with no condition or expectation of “I will only give you all of me if…” There is never an “if” to God’s unending self-emptying in love, which Jesus shows us.
The Johannine Gospel (ch. 13) tells us this night that if we do not allow Jesus to serve us and wash us, we cannot be with him. From Peter’s questioning of Jesus’ foot-washing servant love we learn that our job is to allow God’s humility and vulnerability to touch our own weakness and dustiness and need. Such intimacy!
And the Jesus that moves from table to garden knows that there is something unspeakable coming, and he cannot avoid it. He is terrified, and his “soul is sorrowful unto death”. He weeps and prays. In our own terrors and tears, we have a companion, this seems to say. He knows. He knows. He wants the thing to play out differently, and his prayer leads him in circles, while those he would have in vigil with him fall asleep. I would be hesistant to believe that he feels peace at his prayer of God’s will being done. The accounts seem to imply he still suffers as this time of painful prayer ends, but the next moment comes, as next moments will. And in it he must live and act and speak or be silent. In his prayer there is the acceptance of “this is coming, I know… I don’t want it… it is… you must be here in it Abba”. I can imagine, again, Jesus prayer of strong demand echoing the Susan Boyle “You Have to Be There” song with which I have been entranced this Lent.
You have to be there, you have to. My life I have placed in thy keep.
And without you I am drifting on a dark and stormy sea.
You have to be there, you have to. Without you I’d drown in the deep.
Too far, too far from land, the waters drag me down.
I reach for your hand.
Jesus’ living of these last hours and days is as holy and precious as we can humanly name. He demands God to be there: he tells God his utter need and shares his pain. He reaches for Abba’s hand. He puts himself in ours. He humbly, vulnerably loves and washes. He prays and waits, harrowed and hollowed by sobs, and he acts and walks ahead.
Most of us have life moments in our experience when time changes. Perhaps it’s at a birth, or at a death, of one we love. Perhaps it’s in a moment of great transition, a natural disaster, an amazing star shower, an achievement of a loved one. Time slows and seems to move in miniscule ticks, as if the seconds are as long as hours.
As we are vigil keepers from tonight through the holy days of the Triduum, may we be tutored in this sacred time. May we find healing where we are broken, wisdom where we are lost, hope where there is despair. But – if I have just one wish for us all – it would be that we allow the Spirit to rouse our hearts and open our ears and eyes to a new encounter with the Beloved One of God. May we see and touch and know this Jesus who journeyed and lived the milli-seconds of these days of the week we commemorate, and the realities of all of human living and dying. He longs to live with us now, to fill our open hands, to heal our hearts and histories, to embrace the emptiness within us that longs for meaning and love and God. He will teach us how to live and, ultimately, how to die. And tell us all of what it means to hope, to be true, to be who we are created bo be, with courage and love. And amaze us with resurrection, now and in another then.
So tonight, during the vigil of silence however we may be with it, may we support each other there, knowing God’s presence and leaning on one another’s.
A blessed Holy Thursday, one and all.