by Barb Levy
During Lent this year I found out that my father has lung cancer. His surgery was scheduled for Good Friday.
My Lenten wilderness took me to places of not knowing what would happen to my father, not being well-acquainted with grief, and not knowing how I would cope with his illness and possible death.
On top of this, I felt sad that I would miss my first Triduum at St. Paul’s in 20 years. This is the only place where I've experienced the love mingled with grief on Maundy Thursday, processed into the chapel to watch at the altar of repose, heard the sung Good Friday passion, helped with the lighting of the paschal fire and watched it spread throughout the congregation in the pre-dawn vigil, heard the litany of saints, rejoiced at the great Alleluia, and been transported by the music that Gary James infuses this (and each) season with.
Yet I also sensed that going somewhere else this year could lead me through a new type of Lenten and Holy Week journey.
So what did I find back home in Rochester, NY? Since I wanted to be with my family the evening before my father’s surgery, I went to a noon Maundy Thursday service at a beautiful old church with tall spires, intricate stained glass, and high arched ceilings. But no one bowed, genuflected, or made the sign of the cross. Corinthians (the institution of the first Eucharist) was read in great haste. There was no pause in the Eucharistic prayer, or elevation of the elements. And to top it off, the good news that the priest shared about what was to come on Easter morning was a promise of chocolate-covered strawberries.
I prayed the entire time (only a 30-minute service) that God would forgive me for being so judgmental and snobbish. Then I went across the street and sat in a stone building at the George Eastman House garden, trying to conjure up Gethsemane.
My Good Friday vigil was 11 hours spent in hospital halls and waiting rooms during my father’s surgery. After spending time alone in the interfaith chapel, I later attended a 12:30 Roman Catholic service. I kept my eyes closed much of the time—partly to keep away tears, and also so that my face might not reveal how shocked I was that they read the Passion at record speed with no emotion. The veneration of the cross consisted of people scurrying up the aisle to kiss or bow to two crosses, perhaps eight inches tall, which I would describe as tchotchkes. I decided to call that 35-minute service “galloping through the crucifixion.”
Yet, even as I spent those two holy days enduring these truncated services, I had a vague sense that some underlying meaning would be revealed to me.
And, without a doubt, in these parched places—of exile from liturgy, music, and my familiar parish community—I heard faint, familiar biddings day and night.
I heard what we learn each Maundy Thursday and Good Friday: that we are here to act out the great commandment—to love one another as He loves us. I was able to channel God’s love, by serving as a privately mournful, yet upbeat, devoted daughter. And I was carried through doubt to do what needed to be done in each moment.
Like the women at the cross or the beloved disciple, I bore witness (to my ailing father) and kept watch (with my steadfast and worried family). Just as we read of the blood and water that poured out of Jesus’ pierced side, I thought of my father’s body being incised in order to be healed. And I tried to look bravely at his appearance after surgery, when he seemed so marred, beyond human semblance (Isaiah 52:14).
For the next eight days I was graced with the ability to act most often with caring and compassion, to wait patiently and glimpse occasional optimism, despite being drained of all human strength. My fortitude must have come from that great, unseen source of all being—Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
So despite how any of us “do” liturgy—how flustered, reverent or dignified we appear, how many people are in the pews, whether our liturgy borders on theater rather than worship, we are taught in these Great Days that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new. We experience through the agony of the cross how Jesus is the link between God and humanity, heaven and earth, and that there is nothing we will grapple with or attempt to flee from, which he has not also endured.
Finally, I need to share how wonderfully my Triduum ended. I attended the Saturday night Easter Vigil and Easter Compline services at Christ Episcopal Church. This old stone-clad building near the Eastman School of Music has a glorious music program and the most spectacular organ I’ve ever heard. In that place I found another parish home, one that I would love to attend again and again. In it I experienced what drew me into the mystery of Christian faith at my first Easter Vigil. I was transported through light and shadows, Word and response, despair and faith, to the soaring grandeur that breaks through at the Easter Acclamation.