The state of the current Anglican body in the United States is one that finds itself worshipping in schools, office buildings, homes, or during evenings in another church’s building. Many churches that left old Episcopal properties also lost all of their furnishings, liturgical tools, and money. So, it is understandable that some of the traditions that were incredibly formative in people’s lives in the Episcopal Church are yet a widespread key part of new or renewed Anglican churches. Some things, like grand cathedrals, may never be a part of the ACNA or AMiA; a loss many (myself included) “mourn”. However, as Anglican churches are becoming better established and owning their own properties, there are many things which are ready to make a comeback!
Of these things, one of the most formative in my own life was the Maundy Thursday “Prayer Watch”. After the Maundy Thursday service of feet washing and the stripping of the altar, parishioners would take shifts throughout the night to pray at the church. This was a common practice at virtually all the Episcopal Churches I was around growing up. Typically there was a large poster signup sheet sitting in the narthex during lent for at least two people to cover each hour from the end of the Maundy Thursday service till the start of the Good Friday service the following day.
I couldn’t find when this tradition started, but as you could assume it started in the Roman Catholic Church. It was custom in the Roman Church, and still is in the Anglican world, not to consecrate any bread or wine between Maundy Thursday and Easter (the three days of Triduum). Therefore, enough was consecrated to cover Good Friday and Holy Saturday services. Since the main altars were stripped on Thursday as a solemn reminder of Christ’s arrest and pending death, the consecrated elements were moved to a side altar, and it was labeled an “altar of repose.” With the Roman belief that the consecrated elements were the actual body and blood of Christ (known as transubstantiation, which Anglicans and most other protestants do not believe), it was even more important and meaningful to keep vigil with Christ, in His “physical” presence. Further, the movement from the main altar to the “altar of repose” symbolizes the movement from the Upper Room (where the last supper was had, just like the last communion meal had at the altar in the church) to the garden of Gethsemane. There is usually a procession of the elements during the stripping of the altar from the main altar to the side chapel to signify this movement. Many churches, like my previous one in Orlando (Cathedral Church of Saint Luke) dressed the side altar with dozens of flowers and plants to look like an actual garden.
The Lord asked His disciples to keep watch with Him while He prayed and agonized in the Gethsemane (Matt 26:38). What better way to continue our Lenten and Holy Week journey “with Christ” than to dedicate ourselves, sacrificing some sleep on a work/school night, to extra prayer and devotion? My dad and I made this a part of our annual Maundy Thursday tradition. They are some of my best memories. Somehow, in some way, I could “feel” the solemnness, the anticipation, the sadness of Christ’s arrest and pending death that carried over with me until the Easter proclamation at the Saturday Easter Vigil. It made the “ALLELUIA, CHRIST IS RISEN!” on subsequent singing of the Gloria and celebration of the Eucharist so much more powerful. It deeply formed my understanding of Christ’s sacrifice and of His glorious resurrection.
And….if your child falls asleep in a pew, like I did on multiple occasions…it is a chance to do what my father did to me: he nudged awake and I looked up and saw the silhouette of a man standing of me saying, “could you not watch with me even one hour?” (Matt 26:40) Believe me, I NEVER forgot that scripture! See…Christian formation!
If your church cannot or does not do this, families could do this together in their own home or together with other families.
If your church has the space to do this, do it! For either theological or practical reasons, some churches may not be keen on building this prayer watch area around elements or an altar/table at, that is understandable. At very least, fill an area with plants, flowers, and other garden things. Maybe it can take place outside in an actual garden! Keep the area dimly lit with low-level lighting or candles. Have some chairs and/or kneelers nearby. Provide some Bibles, Prayer Books, or print outs with other meditations. If a side area within a larger church nave, try to keep all the other lights off accept the prayer area. For safety and security of all members, you should have at least three people signed up at all time, one of which you know is reliable and also knows the particulars in case something happens (alarm, lights, A/C, who to call in emergency). Depending on your area, you may want to pay for private security to stay all night. Next to the entrance door you can provide a sheet of emergency information.
Highly encourage entire families to participate. While conducting the watch on Friday night doesn’t necessarily correlate with the Gethsemane story, I think adding an extra night of watch would give families (who would hesitate due to school or work) opportunity to participate on Friday night.
(cover photo of St James Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge)