Last night, my local church (Desert Mission Anglican Church in Phoenix, Arizona) had a Maundy Thursday service that included Holy Communion and Tenebrae. We gathered in a basement lit only by a few Christmas lights and candles. In the darkness, we read the Scriptural account of the events leading to the crucifixion. In traditional Tenebrae fashion, one of eight candles was extinguished after each reading, slowly engulfing us all in that deep kind of darkness only found in church basements.
Holy Communion was especially meaningful, of course, and the songs our worship leader chose could’t have fit the occasion better. What a privilege to be able to join in and play guitar for a service like this. The part that really got to me was the Stripping of the Altar.
After all the candles except for the center Christ-candle had been snuffed out, the worship team and clergy gathered around the altar (communion table, for you non-sacramental folks :), and stripped it of all decorative items. The candlesticks were taken away and the table cloth was pulled off in one motion by our pastor. The simple, plain wooden table stood completely bare, with only the single, small flame of the Christ-candle left. It alone kept the blackness from swallowing the room.
By the light of the Christ-candle, a deacon read Psalm 22.
…I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots….
We exited the building in silence, contemplating what we had just participated in, what we had just witnessed. In Holy Communion, we received the true body and blood of of our Savior and the forgiveness of sins, and immediately afterward, we were thrust into the narrative of what happened so that we could come to that table. The God of the Universe became a man, lived among us, healed us, loved us, cared for us. He fed us and gave us words of life. We turned on him, stripped him of his clothes, beat him while was naked, spit in his face, nailed him to a tree, and left him on splinters to die.
We punctured his side and ripped his skin; he now offers us his body and blood freely as a gift. All the world’s life was created through him; we repayed him with torture and a slow death. Yet, he ransoms us from the powers of darkness, forgives us, and injects us with new life.
I do not understand that kind of love.