Meditation: Darkness and desertion

Ordinarily on Maundy Thursday I would look for a church holding a Tenebrae service. Our Baptist church does not (not a big surprise – though I did attend a Baptist church, before I was married, that did have a Good Friday tenebrae service one year), and I don’t know if another church in the community does. But I was asked to be in a skit this evening to promote Cub Scout day camp, and – not realizing at the time that this would be Maundy Thursday – I agreed to do it. (It still seems strange to me that people would schedule a meeting for tonight – but I guess most people I know didn’t grow up in a church that had Maundy Thursday services.)

I have only vague memories of those services, but I do remember the growing unease that came with the increasing darkness. I don’t think the Gospel readings meant much to me, but I couldn’t help but be affected by the sense of impending doom as the readings moved toward the inevitable climax, with events set in motion that would culminate in the death of Jesus. (The actual account of his death is left for the Good Friday service, but most of the drama plays out the night before.)

As an adult, I have not felt quite as affected by such a service. I don’t know if it’s having grown out of any fear of darkness, or that I deal with most fears better now that I am grown up. Or perhaps it is at least partly because I haven’t been to a Tenebrae service in such a large church sanctuary since my childhood. In the small church my husband pastored in Michigan, even with the overhead lights all turned out, the lights on the lectern and the organ dispelled any sense of real darkness. In the huge sanctuary of the church I grew up in (and of course it was all that much huger when I was a little girl), those lights did very little to counter the oppressive darkness.

I don’t know if they told us, in those services when I was young, why we had to leave in darkness and silence. I just remember how uncomfortable it made me. When my husband led Tenebrae services, he reminded us that we were like the disciples, fleeing in darkness and confusion as Jesus was led away after his arrest. It doesn’t take much for me to be able to imagine doing that – I’m sure I would have done exactly that.

I’ve never been one for taking risks. Even in games I never liked to take chances. I looked for the safe, predictable path to follow, where potential rewards were less but so were potential dangers. I learned from my non-conformist mother not to feel I had to follow the crowd, but I’ve never cared for going against them either. Being an evangelical Christian has sometimes meant going against the flow, and I’ve been willing to do that, but the stands I take tend to be pretty low-profile ones.

I have often tried to imagine the emotions of Peter, following Jesus’ arrest in the garden. I’m far from impulsive, as he seems to have been, but even supposing I managed to muster the courage to raise my sword to defend Jesus, how would I feel when Jesus seemed to disdain that effort? Not only telling me to put up my sword, but healing the man I had attacked on his behalf? If that’s the thanks I get for trying to fulfill my pledge to be willing to die for him, I might as well get out and save my own skin.

But he is my friend, my teacher, my master. I can’t just leave him and be done with it. I have to follow at a distance, to see what will happen to him. I’ve never been particularly good at subterfuge, but for the sake of staying near him I can try to blend in with the crowd in the courtyard. Then someone notices my accent. Big trouble now! It won’t help Jesus for them to take me, too – and anyway, when I tried earlier, he didn’t want my help. Hurt pride mingles with fear for my life as I swear I don’t know the man’s name.

But I can’t write off three years of close friendship that easily. He is more than a friend – he is my master and … well, I thought he was God’s anointed Savior. But if he were, would he be letting them take him like this, probably to kill him? He has such power – I’ve seen it – why doesn’t he use it now? Has he given up? If he gives up, why shouldn’t I?

With each denial it’s a little easier. I feel bad, but I’m more afraid and angry. Then he comes out. He looks bad. What did they do to him in there? And what are they going to do to him next? Where are they taking him? It’s nearly morning – I hear a cock crowing. Wait! What was that he said about the cock crowing? What have I done?

He’s looking at me. He must know what I’ve done. He doesn’t look angry, just sad. And very tired. I feel awful. How could I say I didn’t know him? I thought he meant everything to me. I promised to be faithful to him. Some friend I am. Even if he got out of this alive, would he even want to talk to me? I wouldn’t want to talk to me. I wish I could get away from myself, but I’m stuck with me. What a lousy person to be stuck with.

And that’s where Maundy Thursday ends, in darkness and desertion. And tomorrow doesn’t look to be any better.


2 Responses to Meditation: Darkness and desertion

  1. Margaret Packard says:

    I remember the huge, dark sanctuary too. It was sad and scary and exciting at the same time, sort of like watching a horror movie, except that this was supposed to have really happened. Didn’t the organist play some discordant sounding music too, which added to the whole effect?

  2. Pauline says:

    I don’t remember the music, but that would certainly have been fitting. When the Tenebrae service is held on Good Friday (which was how it was originally done, from what I read), there is to be some kind of loud sound (using cymbals, for instance) to represent the earthquake.

    One thing that seems to differ from church to church is what they do with the Christ candle at the end. In some churches it is left burning, in recognition that today Christ is living and we are never truly alone as he was on the cross. Others hide it, and other extinguish it to represent his death. To me it seems most fitting to extinguish it to represent his death – so I’m guessing that’s what we grew up with. Do you remember?

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