I found myself sitting in our joint Maundy Thursday service alongside the other congregation from which we rent space, frustrated. I was a little distracted because I had arrived late and my adrenaline was still going, making my senses heightened and my self-diagnosed ADD kick-in. I was also mad at myself for my own liturgical snobbiness, which had taken note that the service was technically a Good Friday liturgy that they were using on Thursday.
Now, I know I can go too far in chasing mystical and intense dynamics in my relating to God. But still, I was so wanting to feel God on this night, and I sat there in this service confused and saddened at my failure in finding it.
I drummed up as much intentionality, concentration, and emotion as I could when I took communion. I quieted myself and felt the ridges of skin on my face as I lightly held my head in my hands and prayed. I tried to sacramentally liken the “Christ candle” being snuffed out with some sort of existential representation of Christ in my mind.
But nothing was “stirring” or “impacting” me like I hoped. This just felt like another service on a regular ol’ Thursday. In a lot of ways, it felt like what the rest of this Lent felt like: normal, everyday life with nothing special, save for a too-busy schedule and days lacking the discipline I’d like.
But then, during the Scripture readings, instead of reading along I closed my eyes and listened to the words filling the sanctuary. And that’s when I noticed something else going on.
We rent space from one of the oldest churches in the city–and when I say oldest, I don’t just mean the building or the church organization proper; I’m talking the congregants too. I go to my church, however, and week after week I hear young voices lead our liturgy, pray, sing, and preach; I hear pure, unstrained voices speaking with lips unaccented by wrinkles and unframed by creases, as they say “the body of Christ, broken for you.” But not this night.
In this shared service, old, strained, and quivering voices filled my mind with Scripture readings I may have read a couple of hundred times before, but which they may have heard thousands of times. I watched as the pastor offering communion had to step from behind the table to bend down and offer it to the woman in the wheelchair, bones too brittle and frame too thin to support her standing. I watched her strain to lift her arm to reach for the bread: needing it, longing for it, determined to have it.
I recalled a conversation over tea I’d had with some friends about this very dynamic. I had explained that I’m still a relative novice to this whole “liturgy” and “church calendar” thing, having been raised a Southern Baptist and only discovering church tradition a couple of years ago. And just like with anything, the various “firsts” were exciting and dynamic.
My first Ash Wednesday service, held at a suburban Anglican church, still holds the title for the most “charismatic” experience of my life. Lent has been some of the most fruitful times of writing, growth, and reflection I’ve ever had. This past Advent was the first I took seriously, and it led me to such exciting moments with God. The Good Friday service I go to each year has been an annual highlight. Yet I went to the same one this year, and it didn’t move me like it has.
How do I relate to these moments as I start doing them regularly and building the rhythm of my years around these Holy Times? Am I to look out for moments of meeting with God? Do I strain to conure them? Am I merely to trust he’s there as I engage with them, hoping they’re changing me somehow? Is it even about “change” or “growth” or “meeting God” in the first place? Or something else altogether? Sure, Lent #1 and #2 were amazing, but what about this Lent #3? What about when I get to Lent #30?
“You take communion every week, right?”, asked Austin.
“Well that’s a Sacred Act in Sacred Time that you have to do repeatedly over and over again. How do you relate to that?”, he humbly and rhetorically asked.
My eyes went to the woman in the wheelchair on this Thursday. And the voices. And their faces: worn by trial, with God’s severe, yet loving hand having carved holiness into them with every wrinkle and blemish.
And I realized this was the answer.
This Maundy Thursday service may have been the 50th one for some of the people in the room. Yet they were still there, singing, listening, reading, and reaching for the communion bread as if it held all that God could offer them–as if it were spiritual food. I had felt so small in their presence–like I was an atheist in my faith, relative to theirs.
And yet they were still there as “needy” people. In a sense, their “bigness” came from their “smallness”; their seemingly constant acknowledgment of their need for Christ at every turn, perhaps for as many as 80 years for some of them. And this acknowledgement was one they carried in their bodies, in the rhythms and cadence of their steps, not in their words or charisma or emotional intensity. They are truly living it. This isn’t just “cool” or “neat” to them. This is life. It is breath. It is food.
My hope in my Holy Day apathy is the same I have for communion: it’s not about me or change or experience or even feeling closeness with God. It’s about becoming like these saints. It’s about weaving these constant reminders of my need for him into my life and week and year. It’s about grinding to dust the vestiges of wanting to be a “cool” Christian, so this all might “merely” become like breath to me. It’s about learning to trust that he is who he says he is and that he is there no matter my intellectual clarity, emotional engagement, or level of willful obedience in that moment.
It’s about messily stumbling into a rhythm and cadence that whispers through my steps I need him. I need him. I need him. I need him. I need him.
Because, at the end of the day, the week, the year, and my life, I do.
[image credit: “Melancholy” by Edvard Munch]