Holy Week thoughts of an Involuntary Anchorite

Holy Week has some great dramatic services : The Palm Sunday Procession followed by the dramatic reading of the gospel, the Blessing of the Holy Oils on Maundy Thursday morning or the Foot washing and Stripping of the Altar in the evening, the starkness of Good Friday – the church bare, the Passion sung, the Cross unveiled and venerated, the simplest of communions. And greatest of all the Easter Vigil, with the solemn reading of the Old Testament story of salvation from creation onwards, preparing the ground as it were for the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, the kindling of a fire, the lighting of the Pascal candle and its light spreading through the whole congregation the joyful proclamation of the Resurrection in the Exultete, followed by a cacophony of organ, bells and every other musical instrument leading to the singing of the Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

I will miss doing those at church, but if Palm Sunday is anything to go by the online service will be a reasonable if not ideal substitute. I certainly enjoyed waving my home made palm branches in the garden and putting them on the door as a sign that it was Palm Sunday afterwards.

But the thing I love best, and the thing I will miss most this year is the Watch after the Maundy Thursday Eucharist. Sitting in silence before the Blessed Sacrament . Sitting with others gazing at a piece of bread which encapsulates the mystery of God becoming human for us.

For some reason the silence is much deeper, the presence of God more tangible at this time then than at any other time of the year. I’m not sure why this is: Perhaps it’s partly sharing the silence with others; I had planned to go to a Quaker Meeting for Worship the first weekend that the churches were closed, and though I tried to spend the time sitting in silence listening to God it wasn’t the same on my own. Perhaps it’s because of the amazing service which has just happened, an emotional roller-coaster from singing the Gloria for the first time since the start of Lent though the foot washing which turns the world upside down, to the desolation of Psalm 22 and the stripping of the altars which ends the service. Perhaps it’s the effect of a pool of candlelight in a dark church, the smell of candles and flowers which honour the Sacrament and recreate the Garden of Gethsemene for us. Perhaps it’s that we are in a way in that Garden, where the bit of the Passion which for me is closest to our own experience; knowing something unpleasant has to be done and wanting to run away from it.

I’m not the only person to feel this is the most important part of Holy Week and Easter – someone described this time thus: ”In the candlelit silence in the chapel, seasoned with the prayers of generations of believers, sitting before the true presence of Christ, the radiant peace and gravity of Christ’s presence is palpable. The time here is markedly different from all others during the church year. “

The church sees the Watch as a re-enactment of that time in the Garden, and these days it ends with the reading of the arrest of Jesus from one of the Gospels. When I was young the Watch was kept on a rota through the night until the Good Friday Liturgy – a custom which perhaps originated in a concern that some evil person might carry of the Sacrament and use it for satanic purposes. Traditionally people try to watch for an hour, which always feels a bit like trying to outdo the disciples who fell asleep, and to whom Jesus said “ could you not watch with me one hour”? Sometimes I manage an hour, but more often like the disciples my flesh is too weak to last out that time.

I’m wondering how to keep the watch this year:

If the weather permits I might go into my own garden for a while after the Maundy Thursday service. That would feel like following the example of the disciples in a different way from usual. However April being the cruellest month, its unlikely to be warm enough to stay outside for an hour – and certainly not warm enough to go to sleep!

I may try sitting on my own in a dark room with just a candle lit – that might remind me of the atmosphere at the altar of repose.

These days I often wake up in the night – perhaps instead of trying to go back to sleep I can do a bit of watching then?

The watch ends with the reading of a gospel account of the arrest of Jesus: this year it is Luke 22.31-62. I think I will try to read this last thing before I go to bed.

The Church also provides a number of other Bible passages which may be read during the watch:

John 13.16-30
Psalm 113
John 13.31-end
Psalm 114
John 14.1-14
Psalm 115
John 14.15-end
Psalm 116.1-9
John 15.1-17
Psalm 116.10-end
John 15.18–16.4a
Psalm 117
John 16.4b-15
Psalm 118.1-9
John 16.16-end
Psalm 118.10-18
John 17.1-19
Psalm 118.19-end
John 17.20

I may try to spend part of the evening reading John’s last supper discourses – not sure I can cope with all those psalms!

A priest friend once told me he tried to pray for everyone he knows during the Watch – that sounds
like a good thing to do at this difficult time.

I wonder what it would be like to spend 40 minutes (the longest you are allowed unless you pay a fee) on Zoom with others in silence?

What do you think? You can add comments to this blog – please add your suggestions as to how to keep the Watch in this year of lockdown.

Also it would be good if you could tell us which bits of Holy Week mean the most to you, and any ideas on how to make them as real in this year of lockdown as they usually are.

1 thought on “Holy Week thoughts of an Involuntary Anchorite

  1. If I’m honest, I’ve always struggled a bit with the celebratory nature of the first part of the Maundy Thursday service – in the middle of the solemnity of Holy Week and after the 40 days of Lent we suddenly find ourselves singing the Gloria and celebrating the Eucharist in gold vestments. But then mixed into that are the re-enactments of the foot washing; I once experienced a previous Bishop of Portsmouth washing feet (at an ordination service) in which he took off his chasuble and mitre, and turned his stole to the side, tying it in the way a deacon does and this felt incredibly symbolic.

    However, I find the liturgy on Good Friday afternoon the most moving. The mixture of silence, rituals, and unaccompanied music (yes, here’s the organist appreciating the lack of organ!). How will this feel this year? well hopefully we’ll be able to put together an online service that still contains these elements, and whilst we can’t be in our church building, we have images from previous years that may help us to feel that we are there. The music that the choir recorded a few weeks ago when it was first looking like we may not be in church for Holy Week will also help. I’ll also miss the stillness of going to Evensong in the Cathedral on Good Friday, and the Requiem that is sung by the Cathedral Choir afterwards. Maybe not experiencing these things this year will make next year feel even more intense?

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