Basically, it’s Gethsemane all over again. That’s how I approach the Altar of Repose on Holy Thursday. We’ve just journeyed through Jesus at his Last Supper, when he took bread and wine and said “This is my Body. . . This is my Blood. . . Do this in memory of me. . .” When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim his death on the cross.
Jesus washes our feet. The meal means nothing unless we go out and love other people as Jesus loved us. When we wash others’ feet we are washing the feet of the Lord himself. What a beautiful way to remember his love for us!
And that procession! Pange lingua gloriosi . . . It’s the ancient Eucharistic hymn composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas and sung by the Church for centuries on this night. The melody haunts me and strikes a deep chord within me. I remember singing this very hymn at a very young age in the children’s choir of my home parish. I draw a deep connection with generations of Catholics before me who have sung that hymn on Holy Thursday night.
The Eucharistic presence of Jesus is taken away from the church, just as he was arrested and taken away from his disciples on that night. The power of ritual!
As mentioned, the Altar of Repose for me is my sharing in Jesus’ agony in the garden. After seeing to the details of tonight’s liturgy, it takes me a while to settle into deep prayer at this altar. I am affirmed by the faith of the many people who fill our chapel, each person bringing their own memories of Holy Thursday night, their own prayer intentions, their own struggles.
Lord, I am not worthy. That’s all I can think of tonight at the Altar of Repose. I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, that you have called me to be your light to the world, that you have chosen to be my friend. Try as I might, I cannot fathom why you even bother with me, a sinner. I am imperfect and inadequate, impatient with myself and with the world around me. It’s a fractured world, isn’t it? So divided and polemic. Our leaders seem to excel only in pointing fingers, and even those who call themselves Christians are seemingly driven by a spirit contrary to the commandment of love that we remember on this holy night.
Lord, I am not worthy.
I am distracted, so I pray for my mother. I remember my late father and my brother Tops, both gone from this world. I pray for all my family and my friends. I remember those who have asked me to pray for them, for the sick and the depressed and the directionless. And yet it still comes back to five words:
Lord, I am not worthy.
What do you want of me, Lord? Is this the same confusion you felt at Gethsemane? You knew what your Father wanted. You knew full well that you would die the next day. You, the Son of God, would taste death itself in the most excruciating way. The mystery of the Incarnation became very real in that garden of agony, where your divinity was almost overshadowed by your deep and very real humanity.
“Take this cup away from me,” you prayed ardently. Those closest to you couldn’t even stay awake and join you in this prayer, a first hint of the abandonment to come.
Lord, in your agony, I feel your very human doubts. In some strange way, I feel affirmed by your doubts because that means you understand where I am coming from. How can I conquer my doubts, Lord? Give me a sign!
Tonight, I only see the Sign of the Cross. Is that how my doubts will be dispelled? Lord, the cross is too much for me. Take this cup away from me!
And yet, despite your own doubts, you eventually say to your Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” That submission, that surrender and trust, carried you through the next several hours as that heavy cross was forced upon your shoulders.
I think I get it, Lord. Help me! Help me to surrender!
Not my will but yours be done.