There are some Gospel passages, poetry, songs, pieces of art, for which I know I’m not ready. I’ve pondered them and know in my heart that someday they will mean something to me. Someday they will shake my foundation. But not yet. I’m not ready yet.
Last night was one of my favorite nights of the year. I look forward for months to praying before the Eucharist after the Holy Thursday service. I’m usually at the church I grew up in, it’s always at the end of a long day but at the beginning of an intense weekend of music and prayer. There is something about that place in front of the tabernacle that makes me able to breathe more freely.
As people started to wander out of the sanctuary some involved members of the parish started breaking down the altar. Chairs for the footwashing were swiftly moved to their corner of the sacristy. Two women whose kids I went to school with faced each other on either side of the altar table and folded up the cloth. A choir member began the intricate operation, involving pulleys and cords, of taking down the plain white banners that hang on either side of the crucifix. The lights dimmed so we couldn’t see how the years have faded the paint, leaving dark spots where the banners usually hang.
We’ll go back there today and the candles will be out. The altar will be bare.
The parishioners have a system, because every year we do the same thing. We run into the emptiness, knowing what’s on the other side.
I’ve been to the bottom, emerged, fallen again, and found a new bottom. But every time I’ve left something halfway down the pit I didn’t need: some pride, some expectations. With every emptying I learn what matters.
I’ve learned that it’s not perfection I need, but people. I’ve learned that even when all of the labels are discarded I am still a beloved creation of God. I’ve learned that I cannot “manage” God’s abundance of blessing through the force of my wants. I’m still learning that being well is not always the same as being how I always was.
This is not to say that I have enjoyed any of this. But I am relieved that I have the witness of my community, my family, and my God who all know how to let things fall to the ground.
I watch people spend their whole lives running from the emptiness. Rather than stripping their altars they pile more and more on top of it, for protection or distraction or disguise. After a while you can’t even tell what was there to begin with.
I have been guilty of this myself, fleeing emptiness, dressing up a fallow season. But every time I sit in a bare sanctuary I come a little closer to understanding its sparse perfection. I come a little closer to knowing it’s simply the other side of the coin of abundance. And maybe someday I’ll begin to understand John 12, I’ll begin to understand Jesus, I’ll begin to know the fruitfulness of desolation.