"Altar of Repose, Maundy Thursday, Tucson, Arizona" (c) 2000, 2016 Stu Jenks.
(From my hardbound book, Flame Spirals. Also available as an e-book, wherever they are sold.)
The Altar has been stripped. The crosses in the sanctuary are draped in black cloth. The choir chairs are now stored in a closet somewhere. The church is dark. It's 2:00 a.m. on Good Friday and it's my watch. The woman I relieved has just left. My camera and tripod are in a pew, and I'm standing in a side chapel at the back of Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church. I have an hour to pray and shoot. Better get to it.
I was here earlier tonight for the Maundy Thursday service. Some Christians live for Easter, or for Christmas. I live for Maundy Thursday, the most meditative service in the Episcopal liturgy. We arrived in the evening and heard the story of the Last Supper, of how Jesus told his disciples that they should love everyone, serve many, and be humble to all. The story goes that after bread and wine, Jesus washes the feet of his followers. Symbolically, the congregation of Grace St. Paul's washed each other's feet. Back in the day, the priest used to wash all of the feet of the parishioners, he being Christ, we being the disciples. I preferred the old way. Now, first I'm Jesus, then I'm a disciple, and we now only wash one foot per person, which seems just down right silly to me. Both feet or none at all, I say. But I'm just an artist, a mystic, an odd duck who comes to the church of my birth infrequently. I really shouldn't criticize them. The Washing of One Foot is about as experiential as most Episcopalians get. They are doing the best they can, but sometimes I do wish I had been born Black Southern Baptist. Now those folk know how to raise the roof for Christ.
Sometimes I think the reason I like Maundy Thursday so much is simply because of an experience I had as a child. Mom took me to the Maundy Thursday service at Zion Episcopal Church in Upstate New York in the early 1960's. I guess I was around seven. After the foot washing and the communion and the stripping of the altar, they turned off all the lights, and then they rolled in this cannon. Yes, a cannon like the one they shoot off at football games when the home team scores a touchdown. Well, they rolled in this cannon, pointed it right up the center isle, and shot it off. KA-BOOM. As a seven year old, I thought that was the neatest thing. Usually I had to be quiet in church, but that night they were shooting off fireworks. Neat-O.
No cannons at Grace St. Paul's tonight. Strong incense but no cannon. Pity.
Tonight, after we delivered the Host to the Altar of Repose in the side chapel, we were instructed to leave the church silently. No coffee hour. No shaking of the priest's hand. Just go thoughtfully and quietly to your car and go home.
But for the hard core among the faithful, there is the Watch of Gethsemane.
As soon as tonight’s service ends, someone will be praying in the side chapel until Noon on Good Friday. This is the Watch of Gethsemane, the pulling-an-all-nighter-for-Christ.
On the night prior to being arrested, Jesus went to a Garden at Gethsemane to pray and he asked his disciples to come and pray with him. They came to the garden but soon fell asleep. This made Christ mad. Then the Romans came, the boys woke up, and ears were flying off people, ears were being miraculously reattached to people. Jesus was dragged away by the Romans, and Christ had one hell of a bad day on Friday. You know the story. But before the Romans came, Christ prayed and really wished his disciples had stayed awake. So, today, modern Anglicans stay awake. Well, sort of. At least some of us lose a little sleep on the night before Good Friday.
I'm here at two in the morning for a number of reasons:
1) I love being in the church alone, late at night and this is the only time I have the chance to do that.
2) I like praying and meditating in general. I pray all the time. OK, not all the time but a lot. And,
3) I’ve got a photograph in mind.
I turn from the large sanctuary and enter the tiny side chapel. It's so beautiful, with white candles lit all around and white lace meticulously hung on all the windows and walls. A one-person kneeler is positioned in front of the small altar that holds the bread and the wine, the Host. I close my eyes, open them, close them again. I can see it in my mind’s eye. I know what to do.
I go and get my Rollei and tripod and set them up and compose the shot. Focus 2/3 back. Set the f-stop to 5.6. Get out the Zippo. There is a ton of light here. Half a minute exposure time tops. I open the Zippo and go to work. I flick the flint. I make a spiral. I snap the Zippo shut with a loud clack. I repeat the process. Once, twice, six more times. Time becomes timeless as it does sometimes when I'm shooting. Not always, but it is tonight. I take a deep breathe and close my eyes after the seventh exposure.
"You have a shot," says The Small Voice Within.
I pray the voice is right.
I'll take it on faith.
I open my eyes.
I still have to pray and experience the wondrous dark of the church before the next Watcher arrives at three. I quickly pack up the Rollei and the tripod and place them in a pew outside of the side chapel. I slowly walk around the sanctuary. Down the center aisle. Up by the pipe organ. Around the main altar. Back down a side aisle. I breathe it in again and again.
I return to the side chapel and the Altar of Repose. It’s got to be close to an hour now. Time to do a formal prayer. I kneel on the single kneeler, close my eyes, lazily clasp my hands, and pray.
I pray for my ancestors. I pray for my mother and father. My sister, too. I pray for Annie and all the past women in my life. I pray for the recovering addicts and alcoholics, newcomers and old-timers alike. I pray for friends, near and far. I pray for the healing of strangers and the healing of loved ones. I pray for healing for myself. I pray for the best possible outcome for everyone. I pray with words. I pray with no words at all.
My eyes open after a time and I see the Altar of Repose above me, with its crystal white light and its sheer white lace. I smile.
“And, God,” I say quietly, “Thanks for guiding my hand and my mind tonight so I didn't catch the lace on fire.” I chuckle. “That would be a bad thing.”
I hear a soft knock on the outside door to the church.
Must be the three o'clock shift.