Last year’s Holy Week was my first as an Episcopalian, and TEC is the most liturgical denomination I’ve been a part of. I found (and find) all the services meaningful—Palm/Passion Sunday where in good weather we bless the palms ecumenically, a sort of holy block party with our Methodist and Disciples neighbors; Maundy Thursday where our shared meal becomes liturgy and we kneel to wash feet, and later when we watch together at the Altar of Repose; Good Friday, which we share with the other Episcopal church in town. These are all powerful services. And then there’s Easter Vigil.
Easter Vigil was not a service I’d encountered before coming into TEC. I was used to Easter beginning on, well, Easter, but last spring I stood out in my church’s memorial garden near dusk on Holy Saturday, watching three priests’ rather humorous and ultimately successful attempts to ignite kindling without also igniting vestments.
The paschal candle was lit, then, and from it the candles we would carry into the darkened church, the nave heavy with the perfume of the lilies placed on every spare sill and ledge. As the procession began, it was my turn to not set anything on fire—juggling candles + vestments + sheet music and singing harmony on the way to the chancel took the greater part of my concentration. The candles were necessary even after we reached our seats, as the church remains unlit the Service of the Table (“When the electricity magically comes back on,” the music director chuckled).
As we worked our way through the liturgy, I glanced out at the congregation. I’d been to candlelit services before, quiet evenings of Taizé-style chanting, or Christmas Eves in mega-churches where hundreds of flames light a packed semicircle. In my parish, the hundreds became dozens, and as the last vestiges of twilight faded from the stained glass windows, the lofty corners of the building fell into deep shadow.
Now, it is common knowledge that candlelight makes people look good—any women’s magazine will tell you this—but that night I saw the friends and acquaintances of my parish literally in a new light. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (speaking as the Rev. John Ames) writes, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
For just a moment, I had the courage. I saw the broken, haphazard, holy people with whom I shared Eucharist every week, candlelit and shining—the saints and ministers who inspire and uphold and challenge me. Some I knew better than others, some I hardly knew at all, but in that moment I felt a remarkable intimacy and connection with every one, and in their illuminated faces God shined through.
Moments like this are not the norm for me—I sometimes describe myself as a mystic without the mysticism—but I know these little transfigurations are always glimmering just under the surface. They might break through at any moment; I hope for the courage and willingness to bear witness.
What is your Holy Week practice like? Is one of the Holy Week services particularly meaningful to you? Have you had memorable experiences during Holy Week? Where do you see God in ordinary moments?