We stripped the altar at the church last night. Right at the end of the service, after the eucharist was finished; it's how the Maundy Thursday service ends. I don't know how old the practice is, but it represents the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples in Gethsemane and the stripping of Jesus by the soldiers before his execution. The hymns appointed had all been sung; my work on the piano was done, and the priest asked me quietly if I could help him, along with two others, with the somber task. I had not expected to be part of it.
Against the reading of a plaintive psalm (I think it was Psalm 22), read aloud from the back of the nave by the assistant, we went to work. Everything behind the communion rail that wasn't bolted down was taken. The chairs the assistants and the priest used, the brass crosses on their posts, every hymnal and prayer book and water glass. The microphone stand. The massive Bible and Prayer Book.
The assistant's deep voice and the solemnity with which he read made the whole event decidedly eerie. The linen cloth that always covered the alter was folded ceremoniously and taken away. The bread and the wine, already blessed for the Good Friday service, were taken from their place and moved out of the room altogether, down the short corridor and into the sacristy. The doors of the cabinet they are normally kept in, built into the wall behind and above the altar, were left open, making the absence of the elements glaringly and disturbingly apparent.
And as all this went on, everything else was quiet. All those who had attended sat silent in the pews, watching. I could not help but notice the looks some faces bore; somber, pained even, like what was happening, and what it symbolized, was just beyond the edge of comprehension.
And once everything was gone and the reading was finished, the lights were turned off and the whole church fell into darkness and quiet and emptiness. No one spoke. Most, I think, were kneeling. After a minute or two, slowly and one by one, people got up from their pews and quietly shuffled to the door at the back.
Goodbyes were spoken in whispers at the door, even though there was no one praying or otherwise engaged in the church at the time. It was just understood, somehow, that quiet, if not total silence, should be kept.
This morning was the Good Friday service, carried out in front of a bare altar. The bread and wine from last night were to be used entirely, so that none remained. Some of us were given two or three wafers at communion. Once the eucharist was finished, there remained no blessed bread or wine anywhere in the church. As far as I know, this is the only time of the whole year at which that ever occurs.
I cannot wait for Sunday. When the glad shout of Alleluia! returns to the dismissal. When the solemnity is finished and the altar is restored. When things come back to life.