Monday, April 25, 2011

Leaving the World Behind (mostly) for Three Days

This year, the powers of darkness and distraction were especially hard at work in my life as I prepared to enter the Easter Triduum.  I was struggling with the remains of a significant sinus infection (always scary for a cantor approaching these all-important and very strenuous liturgies).  On Tuesday, my home computer suddenly and unexpectedly stopped connecting  to the Internet. Add in a long, tiring rehearsal Monday night,  the disappointment that the Hispanic instrumentalists and most of their choir would not be able to join us due to work conflicts, a few financial challenges and a lingering general exhaustion (probably a legacy from the upper respiratory thing - as well as an unrelenting schedule), throw in a pinch of flare-up of arthritis from the cold rainy weather that had persisted for over a week and I felt especially challenged.

However, all of this seemed to disappear on Thursday afternoon, after I spent some unexpected extra time in the office that morning because of lack of home internet access.  I went home and discovered that my normal joy and anticipatory excitement about the Triduum was beginning to return.  Last year had been a huge challenge for me, as the first Easter after the death of the man I had planned to marry.  Face it - it's hard to see Paschal Mystery through to Resurrection when you are in the depths of grief. Then I had been a bit "off" on the guitar and the Spanish verses of the songs and was frankly struggling to get through things.  I really don't remember much from that year, except that it had been considered to be too muddy to have the Vigil  fire outdoors... and the failure to have the fire outdoors started me off on "the wrong foot" that night.

This time, I discovered that the lack of the computer (on which I am accustomed to spending quite a bit of time) was in fact, a blessing.  Having only my smart-phone available to keep light tabs on email and Facebook, freed me up to focus my energy elsewhere... and by Thursday night, I had enough of said energy to devote to the celebration of the Mass of the Lord's Supper.  I even managed to do a passable job on a psalm on I had never sung Spanish verses before.   So deeply involved was I in the music that I found myself surprised later by praise from several about that psalm.  I  had simply prayed it, as I normally do (with added concentration on the new parts)... without any particular awareness of the musicianship.  It was the same for all of Thursday... concentrating on doing my best... yet deeply aware of the beauty of the celebration.

The evening ended with me spending some time in quiet Adoration, but also with an unexpected call to assist our new deacon with the solemn stripping of the altar. He had been assigned this but had no help and no real preparation. For me, since I had done this for years at previous parishes, it was like coming home to a familiar task.  The slow, reverent movements of removing flowers and candlesticks from around the altar, the careful removal and folding up the of the layers of altar dressing, deliberately calculated to be the least disturbing to those gathered to keep vigil with Jesus in the Eucharist - these, I found unexpectedly soothing. They pulled me into a different mental space - one of servanthood and nurturing. I have always associated this moment with the work of the women who, as the sun set on the day of Crucifixion, helped remove Jesus from the cross and carefully wrapped him in his shroud as they laid him in the tomb. (In one of my parishes, several women would join me as we removed our shoes, knelt in adoration before the Eucharist and then carried out this faithful, necessary work.) It seemed a good ending to the day.I drove home without my accustomed car music, humming strains of some of our songs from that night.

Friday, I went in to rehearse the Exsultet with my pastor (who was chanting the Spanish parts) and the music director, then readied myself for the afternoon celebration of the Passion. Since I would only be there in my role as choir member - no instruments, no vocal solos - I could relax into it. The celebration was simple and heartfelt - and went well.  I found myself deeply moved at the simple, solemn proclamation of the passion, and the people's sincere reverence for the cross. A few minutes breather afterwards and a second rehearsal for our bi-lingual Exsultet and I could go home.  A quiet evening, but with a growing sense of anticipation for what was to come. In rehearsing, I had peeked ahead into what was yet to come... and I wanted to be there.

Saturday dawned a little drizzly at first, but clearing and windy later. I woke with an irrepressible smile as I thought of the night ahead. I breakfasted and drove down to the church to help prepare the space for the great liturgy of the Vigil. Again, I had no desire for driving music - I realized that fasting from all other music was in fact, focusing me on the dynamic movement of the Three Days. By 11 a.m. we workers had re-dressed the altar, put out candlesticks, flowers and plants, decorated the stand for the Paschal candle, put out the towels for the baptisms and prepared the small candles for the people.  Home to rest, prepare an early dinner, dress in my Easter Vigil best, and get back down there...

Shouldering my guitar, equipment bag and my bodhran (Celtic drum), I drove over to pick up my friend Judy, who does not drive, and we headed back to church.  The darkened room hummed with quiet anticipation as I connected the pickup on my guitar and set everything in place.  As we began, we processed out to the bonfire in the courtyard of the friary, to witness the blessing of the Easter fire.  I scooted in ahead of the returning procession to be ready at the cantor stand -- and as the Easter candle entered and spread its light throughout the room, echoed in lit candles held by the assembly, we began my favorite moment of the liturgical year - the solemn chanting of the Exsultet - the proclamation that THIS is the night when Jesus rose from the dead - which Christians everywhere gather to celebrate with great joy.

The Vigil was in motion... and I was swept forward on a wave of Easter joy.  Somehow, every note, every Spanish word, every guitar riff fell into place of its own accord over the next 3 hours and 7 minutes... exhaustion, arthritis, lingering illness and the bitter-sweet dregs of great grief at what could never be - all forgotten for the duration. The great, galloping flamenco-style psalm that follows the Exodus reading required and received every ounce of me - blazing out in what had to be my best rendition ever. It was as if it were no longer I that was doing the work of the musical celebration, but that Spirit-inspired joy was pouring though my lips and my fingers as I played, sang and accompanied our bilingual choir. As the catechmens were baptized and they and several others were confirmed, as we celebrated the Eucharist of paschal triumph, and sang our way out to "Jesus Christ is Risen Today/El Senor Resucito" my feet almost did not touch the ground the entire night.

Scurrying to my car to avoid the downpour of rain, I took my friend home, then spent another two hours winding down before I could go to bed. Was it hard work? Yes. Did it take all my resources of skill and energy? You bet. Was it worth it? Of course! Living the pinnacle of the Church Year is not supposed to be easy. In the spirit of liturgy as "work of the people" it calls us to give our utmost and finest effort - to invest ourselves fully by leaving our worries behind for the great Three Days and giving back the gifts we each have to offer to the community's celebration.

What I have written here was my personal story. Yet each person present during the Three Days brought their own story to the celebration. In return, the celebration not only affirms who we are in Christ and what we believe as his baptized disciples, it has the potential each year to change us for the better.

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