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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Could Ye Not Watch With Me One Hour?: The Altar of Repose

The Maundy Thursday service is over.  The altar has been stripped.  The crosses are now draped in black cloth.  The church is dark.

Things aren't looking good for our Lord.

After celebrating the Passover with his disciples and instituting the Eucharist, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He took Peter, James, and John with him and asked them to keep watch with him and pray.

Gethsemane old tree in garden 1898
Gethsemane, Old Tree in the Garden 1898-PD
They didn't do well.  Three times, he found them sleeping.

If you haven't figured it out yet, liturgical Christians, (Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and others), don't just read and study about the life of Christ, we immerse ourselves, with all our senses in the sequence of the occurrences and teachings of his life.  The night of Maundy Thursday is no different.

During the Maundy Thursday mass, the consecrated host (bread and wine) which has not been consumed is reserved for Holy Communion on Good Friday, when mass is not celebrated.  Rather than being kept in the tabernacle, which stands empty at this time, it is carried in procession and placed upon the altar in a separate, specially adorned chapel.

At the end of this service, all of the altars, except the one which holds the reserved Sacrament, are stripped of their adornments, and left bare.

You may have heard of the tradition of parishes inviting parishioners to sign up to keep watch, in one hour increments, at the altar of repose through the night on Holy Thursday.  Why do they do that?

Mantegna Andrea, PD-OLD
Jesus, at the Lord's Supper told the disciples...told us..."take eat, this is my body......take, drink, this is my blood".  We take the consecrated host seriously.

He also told his disciples in the garden to keep watch with him, and pray.  So...we do.

As soon as the altar of repose is established, someone (sometimes several people) will take the post of watchman.  Someone will be in that chapel every minute of every hour until the service begins at noon the next day, Good is time for him to die.  Someone will be there keeping watch and praying, ...because he asked us to.

What would I have done?  What would you have done, there in the garden that night?  Would we have stayed awake?  Would we have watched and prayed?  Greater followers of Christ did not.
What would I do now?  In hindsight, knowing what I know now, knowing all that he has asked of me?  What will I do when he dies before my eyes, when the Paschal candle is lit late Saturday night and we sing the first triumphant ode to the Resurrection?  When he lives?  Because he lives?

Will I obey?  Will I do as he has asked of me?  Will I take him into my very self and be Christ to the world, with his help?  Will I?

That is why we keep watch and pray.  Because there are questions.

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