Since I went to Rosh Hashanah services lo those many years ago, and saw how everyone came and went, got what they wanted, wandered as they needed to, over hours and hours and hours, I wanted services so outrageously long that maybe I would have time to get myself straight. Today our Good Friday was a solid three hours. For the first hour, I tried to get myself back in my body (always troublesome for us over-thinkers), for the second hour, I calmed down my thoughts some and actually could listen to the empty space we had. The third hour was nice. I faded in and out like humans do.
Going to an Episcopal church gave me long, long services to give me enough room to spread out, and the kissing of the cross, another ritual I first saw in a Jewish context, on Simchat Torah when everyone passed around the Torah and kissed it, one of the most beautiful religious experiences I’ve ever had. We all kissed it, I figured I was good to go, I liked some additional scriptures, too– who doesn’t?
This year at Good Friday I was backstage, lined up with the others in black robes, other servers, the choir, at our church there is this narrow corridor which really feels backstage, has wood paneling on both sides, for us to get past each other we had to squash ourselves back and politely hold our breath.
During the service I held a crucifix for people to venerate, that is, to kneel in front of, or touch, or kiss. At the cathedral in Kansas City, it’s usual to take your moment or two, there is a kneeler, you can pray a while, though I always feel self-conscious about taking too long, the cross is almost human-sized, you can light a candle and leave it, there is no Jesus on the cross, and there is an unbearably sad cello solo while all this is happening. Here in Brooklyn, no one took more than a second, it was a crucifix, that is, Jesus was on there, the cross was pale wood, I noticed mostly his feet, because you always watch those when someone is dying, to see how close they are, often the feet change, and his knees, because, you know, my knees.
A mom taught her son how to do it. Not on the Jesus part, on the bottom part of the cross, just wood. Person after person, and I thought, when I wasn’t wanting to cry, that they could be giving each other colds. But all those lips on the wood, elderly ladies and the young boy whose Mom said, “Then you go like this.”
I wasn’t sure how much of the experience I was allowed to have, since I was serving, how much I was leading, serving, making things happen, and how much I could participate. My view, instead of the front of the church, purple wrap with Jesus theoretically under there, my view was the congregation, the stained glass windows that are just designs, the window in the back that is boarded over as it is repaired. I could look back over my shoulder to see the gold and the angels, my favorite view in that church. I got to see how many people had their eyes closed, and knelt, and folded their hands, and bent over low in their seats. Several.
I just went ahead and knelt down to make sure I got communion when it was time. I didn’t know if I was supposed to, if I was supposed to wait to the end or something, but I wasn’t going to mess around with that. I need all the help I can get.
I took the crucifix up to the altar to set it down, I kissed my hand and touched it to the cross where most of the rest of us had kissed it. They kissed with their lips. I am too shy.
It makes clear sense to kiss the Torah, it makes less sense to kiss a representation of an execution device. I don’t know exactly what we mean by it, but I know such tenderness and such horror close together is good.
Last night at Maundy Thursday, they stripped the altar, and as I watched them fold the linens that go on the altar, I thought about the sheets over my grandma when she was dying, how they twice a day moved her, turned her, resettled her on her bed because she couldn’t move herself, she was dreaming. And the sheets on the beds in the hospitals where my friend was for such a long time. And how when I leave the monastery, I strip my bed, put my sheets in the pillowcase, and remake the bed, praying for the next person who will sleep in it. This is their ritual for leaving.
Image: The Thrown Kiss, Johann Joachi Kandler, Metropolitan Museum of Art.