Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shadows Fall

What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.4-5)

The first time I attended our church’s Maundy Thursday service, I was completely unprepared for the emotional wallop it delivered. By the time it ended and I made my way to the street, I was in shock. I couldn’t describe the feelings that surged in and around me. And I wasn’t alone. As we stood on the corner, waiting for the light to change, members of our congregation searched one another’s faces, as if to say, “What just happened in there?” Now that I’ve been to the service several times, my initial sense of being overwhelmed has eased. But the extraordinary feelings of loss remain, and exiting the service still puts me in an uncomfortable state akin to suspended animation.

They have taken Jesus away, and His absence turns the world into a cold, dark, and distressingly hollow place.

The service is commonly known as Tenebrae, its name drawn from Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” The liturgy is simple: hymns and music commemorate Jesus’s last night with the disciples while a series of readings revisit the events of that fateful evening. The sanctuary is candlelit and with each reading, another light is taken away, so that the church slowly descends into darkness.

We gather around the table, just as Jesus did with His disciples, and we remember Him in the cup and the bread, just as He commanded. Yet the encircling gloom heightens our awareness that this is part of something much darker than we want to admit. Almost unconsciously, we slip into the disciples’ mindset and emotions. We hear the same Communion service that, on the first Sunday morning of every month, beckons us to “share in the Lord’s death until He comes.” But the gravity of this particular night is nearly suffocating. This is the last supper. The disciples will never again break bread with Jesus in His mortal life. When He washes their feet and takes their hands, they will feel their last touch of His earthly flesh. When they go with Him to Gethsemane, it will be the last time they pray together. (And their inability to stay awake will haunt them forever.)

As the sanctuary grows dimmer, our spirits grow heavier. The final hymn is sung, the last passage read, and then comes the final blow. With a single candle flickering on the altar—in stubborn hope—the pastors and elders systematically remove any sign of Jesus from the sanctuary. The communion set is taken away. The cross comes down. The altar dressings are struck. The oversized pulpit Bible is removed. We sit in silence, watching symbols of our faith—and Christ’s presence among us—vanish into the night. The grief is palpable.

There is no benediction. Before the sanctuary is stripped and left to slumber in the shadows, the pastor tells us we’re free to leave after the last item is removed. No one rushes out the door. You sit there, numb, confused, and straining to remember that, in three days, this dark and lonely place will explode in victorious life. All that’s been taken away will be returned, and with it there will be banners and flowers and vibrant anthems of hope and faithfulness and joy.

They have taken our Lord. Shadows thicken and sorrow overwhelms. An aching hollowness carves itself into the marrow of our souls. They have taken our Lord. But they have not defeated our God. Death is no match for this great God of love and power.

Don’t fight the darkness. Let it descend. Go there—into that land of shadow and feel how empty the world becomes when Jesus is taken from it. But know the story doesn’t end in the dark.

What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it — John 1.4-5

The shadows may fall. But our Savior will rise. 

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