When they lit the brazier at the back of the darkened Cathedral on Saturday night to begin the Vigil, Shakespeare's opening line to Henry V came to mind. (No doubt in part because of the atavistic, elemental nature of the image--fire, darkness, ancient robes and rhythms). How paltry my own words are to describe our experience this week! To me, it felt like an episodic drama, in which we were ourselves both players and audience in an inexorable narrative. Due to work responsibilities, we were unable to attend Wednesday's Tenebrae, so we began with the solemnities of Maundy Thursday.
This installment of course is full of shadows and foreboding, yet with the warmth of a most intimate service between people. At the Cathedral, the footwashing is mutual; everyone came up to have their feet washed, and in turn, to wash the feet of the person next in line. There was great tenderness and kindness there, and deep reflection.
Knowing I am a bit of a shutterbug, one of our Cathedral friends asked me to be one of the photographers, so I got to play a role that suits me well: the backstage observer, crouched under a rail, able to be of service even while not fully part of the event. The faces were amazing: some people looking fixedly at the person bathing their feet, others with a distant expression, some at peace, some fierce with expectation. My poor camera was challenged by the low light though I managed a few wonderful images. BP found it deeply moving, particularly in the give-and-get of playing both parts (a few days later, seeing her footwasher, she greeted him with a great hug). As the service concluded, the clergy stripped the altar to leave it bare for the next day.
For the Good Friday service, the spare emptiness was accentuated. On the altar, the clergy wore their deep purple cathedral cassocks--no white surplices, no white albs. The voices singing the Passion were spectacular, their beauty contrasting with the grimness of their tale. And when the Dean, who is a big man, carried the cross up the aisle, I think no one breathed. When he dropped it into its holder with a sharp crack, there was a shudder. And then, in ones and twos, a few people came up to kneel in front, some holding their hands tightly clasped, others reaching out to touch it with their fingertips. (Again, I was asked to play photographer; it was kind to give me something useful to do).
Then came the Vigil. We went out to dinner ahead of time with the kids and were seated in our assigned pew well ahead of time. BP's classmates who were to be confirmed, received, or reaffirmed (about 25 of them, plus a few baptisms) had that undercurrent of excitement of graduation. The stage management was masterful, beginning with that brazier of fire, and then the huge vast space of the Cathedral lit by individual candles (though I did have a moment considering the risks of immolation! :-) When the "class" went up to the altar, in the flickering candlelight, I was so proud of BP!
Now, both BP and I were confirmed Roman Catholic in the 8th grade. Our kids were confirmed in the 10th grade. We all remember that our RC confirmation was a bit of an assembly line -- tracing a cross on the forehead, a few rote words, and next, please! BP found this experience quite different and deeply moving. The Bishop took her hands, as he spoke to her, then touched her face. He looked deep in her eyes ("like he was looking into my soul," she reported later) and made this a very personal moment.
The solemnity broke as the lights came up (though there was no easy sermon from the Dean, who as usual challenged any comfortable complacency) and the choir went forward in full voice, as did the impressive organ. After it ended, we all went to the great hall for a joyous reception of champagne and sweet snacks. BP asked the bishop to sign her BCP, and posed for the standard picture-with-Bishop. And so, finally, home--both metaphorically and physically. And here we are.