Awakening to Heaven: What Maundy Thursday Can Teach Us About Sitting Vigil
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
Tonight, my husband and I will sit alone in our darkened little church, taking part in one of the most meaningful rituals I experience each year. After Maundy Thursday services, the entire congregation will watch in silence as the altar is stripped, the eucharist is taken to a small table in the back of the church, and the lights are dimmed. One by one, we will file out of the chapel silently and head home. A couple of us will stay in the church, and others will return throughout the evening to honor this special night by sitting vigil.
For years, my husband and I came back to church at different hours; our children were young and needed someone at home with them during the night hours. Now that they are responsible teens, however, we are fortunate to be able to return to our darkened little church together. At whatever our designated time (9 or midnight or 4 am), we quickly dress at home and quietly climb into the car for the quick drive. Hustling from the parking lot, we open the door as silently as we can. The atmosphere in the sanctuary is simultaneously still and vibrantly alive. We find our seats in front of the small table that has been arranged for use this one night each year; then we settle in to wait. The name for what we will perform is the Vigil of Repose, and it relates to the sacrament of the eucharist, to bread that either becomes or represents a beloved leader’s body, and to dictates about the consecration of that special bread.
But that is not what this ritual means to me.
For me, this night is all about goodbyes and facing unbelievable fear and supporting those we love. I grew up in a Christian denomination that did not celebrate this vigil. We had our Maundy Thursday worship, often following a seder supper, and then we went home to wait for Good Friday services the following day. I always left church with the heaviest of hearts and faced a night that I knew would contain little sleep for me. I had no idea at the time, but I was sitting vigil every Maundy Thursday night, snuggled in my pink and yellow quilt on the green shag carpet of my suburban bedroom. The entire story pierced my psyche and my heart, and I opened myself to meditate on and imaginatively live into the events that occurred in Jerusalem two millennia ago.
If the specifics of this story bring up resistance, discomfort, disbelief, or judgment for you, no worries. For so many of us, scriptural stories from this (or any) spiritual tradition actually take us far away from spiritual experiences. The stories, though, communicate universal truths that go far beyond their specifics. So, please, if this is not a tradition that feels welcoming to you — try to experience the story beneath the story.
I cannot imagine a tale more poignant or revealing of our human nature: A beloved friend and community leader faces unbelievable anguish — torture, humiliation, and death. He asks some of his closest friends to accompany him into a space of prayer and discernment; he craves their companionship as he attempts to prepare himself for what he knows will shortly occur. All he asks of them is that they wait and watch while he prays: “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’” (Matthew 26:38).
And they just can’t. They cannot fulfill his one simple request.
Three separate times, he returns to find each of them asleep — “Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?’ he asked Peter.” (Matthew 26: 40)
The story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane always devastated me when I was a child. I could not comprehend that his closest friends would abandon this man during his suffering.
Perhaps this foretells of my work in end of life care, bereavement, and Spiritual Direction. Three different vocations, each one essentially based on me sitting vigil by companioning someone who is travelling through their unique darkest night.
I think that every one of these jobs is rooted in a promise I made to myself when I was very young; I promised myself that no child would ever cry alone as long as I was around to offer comfort. Years of babysitting jobs involved me running to children with scraped knees, toddlers awakened by nightmares, and lonely kiddos missing their parents. And trips to the grocery store often ended in me combing the aisles in search of a crying baby. (Not ever having a plan and certainly not ever possessing the courage or audacity to actually carry one out if I had one). Like most childhood promises, mine was heartfelt, simple, and absolutely impossible to keep.
But my movement to make this promise — the desire to do everything in (and often beyond) my capacity to ensure that no one around me suffered alone? I have kept that movement (and to those of you familiar with the Enneagram system of personality types, this likely communicates my “2”ness — as well, perhaps, as my decades of work unraveling patterns of codependency).
This movement to never abandon someone in need is undoubtedly interwoven with those Maundy Thursday nights spent on my bedroom floor.
For seventeen years, I have been replicating those vigils at the deathbeds of hospice patients. When someone in hospice enters the active stage of dying, a nurse or family member will often request that someone sit at the bedside around the clock.
Sometimes this vigil is for the one in the bed, the one facing the great mystery. Sometimes it is for the family and friends struggling to release their loved one into that great mystery. Although the particulars of each dying process are unique, the vigils basically involve a member of the team doing what Jesus asked his friends to do that night in Gethsemane — we sit, we witness, we companion.
Sitting vigil all these years has changed my life. Being on my own deathbed three different times and the focus of similar vigils also has changed my life.
And I have come to believe that both sitting and being sat with is the most important work we can do as humans. But this isn’t about our employment as much as it is about our life’s work. We need not quit our jobs to sit vigil for someone. Opportunities to companion someone abound everywhere at all times.
Sitting vigil with the dying is not everyone’s calling. People frequently confess to my colleagues and me, “I could never do what you do.” What a wonderful thing! How incredibly boring our world would be if we were all drawn to serve in the exact same capacity as one another.
So please do not sit vigil at a deathbed if that is not your area. But do sit vigil — beside someone somewhere.
Sit vigil by the child who is being bullied or the one who is struggling to face his bullying nature and change his actions. Sit vigil by the teenager who questions the significance of her life. Sit by your friend whose heart has just been shattered through betrayal or who is facing a life without a recently deceased beloved. Sit by the person whose job, livelihood, and source of identity have just been abruptly terminated. Sit with the hungry, the sick, the friendless; sit with someone experiencing terror or homelessness, racism or abuse of any kind.
This sitting is not easy. As Jesus said, “‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’” (Matthew 26:41). When we commit to sitting vigil in any situation, we will be tempted. Like Jesus’ friends, we likely will be tempted to fall asleep in a multitude of ways. Indeed, the word “vigil” means “awake”. We are called to remain not only physically awake but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually awake as well. We may be tempted to check out by distracting ourselves from the pain we are witnessing. We may be tempted to offer opinions or judgment of the situation rather than to simply companion.
Staying awake requires that we resist these temptations. It also asks us to resist the temptation to live a life so focused on ourselves that we never bear witness to the pain existing everywhere around us.
The name “Maundy Thursday” is derived from one of Jesus’ very last teachings. Earlier in the evening, as he was dining with his friends and followers, he surprised them all by washing their feet. Following this act of loving service, he presented them with a mission, a mandate (“maundy” means mandate) — to love each other as he had loved them. His entire life and ministry involved teaching, modeling, and transmitting unconditional love; and all these years later we still struggle to understand and appreciate that kind of love — and sometimes to give it as well. As he had repeatedly told those gathered that night and all the others who followed him, heaven is right here, right now. It is the experience of loving and being loved unconditionally.
Sitting vigil in all kinds of circumstances can provide us with the experience of that. But it is not easy.
Vigils can be challenging in all sorts of ways. Staying awake often demands that we face each of our demons and fears. And allowing someone else to stay awake with us requires the courage to be vulnerable.
But we do it anyway.
We sit. We stay awake. We witness. We keep company with those beloved souls who walk, pray, or scream their way through their own Gethsemane. And this is how we create heaven right here, right now.