Last night for the first time I participated in the tradition of maintaining an all-night vigil in the chapel following the Maundy Thursday service. The church had a sign-up sheet for hourly shifts beginning every half-hour, with the idea that there would always be at least two people there. My slot was 1:30 - 2:30 a.m.
The alarm clock went off at 1:00. There was, predictably, that fuzzy moment of, "What the...?" I got up to splash some water on my face, but the cats stayed in bed. I grabbed a Bible, threw on a hoodie, and drove down to the church.
At the conclusion of the somber, solemn evening service that commemorates the Last Supper, our tradition is to wash and strip the altar, leaving the church completely bare. The leftover consecrated communion wafers, the Body of Christ, are kept covered in the chapel surrounded by candles, and we sit with them through the night, in remembrance of the time Jesus spent in the Garden of Gethsemane praying before his arrest, when he took Peter, James and John with him and said, "So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?"
The church was dark except for the candles in the chapel. When I arrived, there were two people praying, a fellow catechumen preparing for his baptism and an older woman. There was just silence, only the subtlest nod of the head in greeting. I still felt bleary-eyed and confused and cold, so I just sat and stared at the candles and thought pretty much nothing at all for several minutes.
After a time I opened my Bible, and decided I would read all four Gospel accounts of the Last Supper and the arrest in the garden. In my body and mind I still felt foggy and sluggish, yet I was amazed at the clarity of the thoughts that came to me as I read. I had known, in a kind of "Bible Trivia" way, that what we call "the institution of the Eucharist" -- the sharing of bread and wine, done in remembrance of Christ, as begun at the Last Supper -- is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but not in John; similarly, the scene on this last evening of Christ's life where he washes the feet of his disciples is found only in John. I had known that, but never really noticed it before, if that makes any sense.
I read about Judas, and contemplated all the many ways I betray Christ every day for money.
I didn't read straight through; a word or phrase would jump out at me, and my mind would ponder it as I continued to stare at the candles, occasionally tilting my head back to gaze up toward the ceiling lost in the darkness. I noticed that the beautiful stained glass window behind the altar had gone completely black, so that the outlines of the figures could be seen, but not their faces.
I noticed the variations between the accounts, small and enormous. I noticed that in all the Gospels after the meal Christ talks to his disciples about what is coming next, about the kingdom of God, etc. But in John, this discussion is long. (And amazing.)
At one point it began to rain, and what started as a soft gentle murmur quickly became a roar as water pelted the chapel roof; it was so loud, I found myself unable to read, so I sat and listened to the rain instead, and then recalled Revelation 1:15, "and his voice was like the sound of many waters."
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May the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, be with you today and always.