Saturday, March 22, 2008

Good Friday Moon

Entry for 21 March 2008:

This year Easter falls pretty early, on the 23 March. The earliest it can be is 22 March, defined roughly (but not exactly) as the first Sunday after the first full moon after 20 March, which is an approximation for the vernal equinox (autumnal equinox in the southern hemisphere). It just so happens that the vernal equinox was on the 20th this year, with the full moon given as falling on the 22nd, so equinox and Easter are pretty close together this year.

This feels appropriate to me, because Easter is in many ways a festival of new life (all the pagan symbols of eggs & rabbits). However, putting the equinox together with Easter can make for a cold holiday, with another 6 inches of snow in Ohio, snow in the Scottish highlands, and a cold, clear, windy night for us here in Glasgow. It was brisk as I walked quickly to and from the Good Friday Tenebrae service at St. Mary’s. On the way home, the already-full moon had risen, gleaming in night sky.

Between travelling and clients, I’d managed to miss Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, so Tenebrae was where I joined the Holy Week process. Tenebrae is an ancient Good Friday/Holy Saturday service, organized around the ritual extinguishing of candles. At St. Mary’s it turned out to be an hour of anguish, really exploring the felt impact of the Crucifixion, too late even for the narrative to distract from the pain of the loss. I came to the service after a day on my own (Diane is still in the US, and about to leave for Chile for her exchange student sister’s wedding), working; so I was distracted and had some trouble focusing.

This version of the Tenebrae consisted mostly of psalms sung by the choir interspersed with short responses and collects. At the entrance to the choir area of the church, by the rood screen, there were a bunch of candles lit (I didn’t count them, but by tradition it is 13). During the psalms, Kelvin, the priest, would extinguish one or two candles, and a little tendril of smoke would rise, so that by the end all the candles had been put out.

Then Kelvin went to the back of the church and brought forward one small lit candle, which he carried up to the front and placed on the pulpit, anticipating Easter. (At our church Toledo, this candle was placed behind the altar, where its light flickered eerily against the back of the sanctuary.) This is supposed to symbolize and anticipate the Resurrection but somehow this time it felt a bit like cheating, as if we couldn’t stand to be left utterly in darkness. (And of course it would have been more effective if they’d turned off the lights in the church.)

Nevertheless, after the choir had processed out, a sense of emptiness seemed to yawn up, a hollowness at the centre, a real desolation and feeling of absence. It had taken this final emptying out for me to reach this, the emotional point of Good Friday.

As I walked home, under the Easter Moon, I thought about the marking of pain and loss that it seems to me are the point of Good Friday. Why have a holiday to celebrate misery? (T.S. Eliot writes in Little Gidding, “In spite of this, we call this Friday Good.”) For me, its value is really the clear laying out of a key spiritual dialectic, between suffering and joy, separation and reunion, darkness and light, death and life. That is, I think, between the Absence of God that most spiritual persons feel a lot of the time (as far as I can tell), and the comforting Presence of Something that we experience at certain special moments and that we call God. You can’t, it seems to me, have one without the other. Or maybe I should say, you can’t have One with the Other.

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