Since before Lent began, I’ve had this “stripping of the altar” idea for Holy Week’s setup. I made this change after morning prayer on Palm Sunday (yesterday), since that morning is when we read the passion narrative in church together which is what really inaugurates the drama of Holy Week in my opinion. Thus when I got home last night night, my little prayer desk setup was already looking the part:
You can basically see what I mean by “stripping of the altar” style: the scarf that I was using as a decorative table cloth thing is gone, the prayer book & Bible are no longer being kept on top of the desk, I’ve reduced to a single candle instead of two or three, and the wall hanging is the smallest one I’ve got. It’s a Russian icon I got from friends as a gift for organizing & playing music at their wedding:
For those of you who aren’t familiar with iconography, that’s Jesus on the cross, John the Baptist on our right and Mary on our left. At the bottom is a little skull in a cave representing the hill’s name – Golgotha – and Christ’s impending burial. There are also a couple angels keeping vigil in the sky above. Some may object – John the Baptist was already dead by this point, why is he at the crucifixion in this icon? The idea isn’t to represent history in a literal fashion, but to portray truth in a timeless fashion. I don’t know a lot about the history of this particular image, but I get the sense that it’s showing Jesus’ predecessors showing him homage. The mother who bore him and the prophet who prepared his way – their work all pointed to Christ, whose own work is pinnacled on the cross.
By the way, the phrase “stripping of the altar” refers to a traditional practice on Maundy Thursday. On Maundy Thursday the ancient worship plan includes remembering the “new commandment” to love one another (commandment -> mandatum -> “maundy”), reenacting the washing of the disciples’ feet, celebrating Eucharist remembering the Last Supper, and then this stripping of the altar. The altar book & stand, the candles, and the linens are all removed from the altar in the church sanctuary. Then the altar is purged with hyssop and rubbed down with palm branches. The symbolic meanings to this are manifold. First of all, the altar is a sort of icon of Christ, so it depicts Jesus’ humbling stripping by the soldiers at his arrest, the “purge me with hyssop so I shall be clean” line from Psalm 51 also comes into this, giving Jesus’ sufferings a reality in our own lives. Furthermore, it’s part of a drama that leads to Good Friday: Jesus has just been arrested and taken away, so the beauty of the church building is covered up, put away, hidden, leaving it as bare as possible for Friday and Saturday while Jesus was under arrest and then dead & buried. There’s also an element of the cleansing of the Temple that Jesus did at the beginning of that week.
So that’s a lot of really cool drama that goes on in Catholic and Anglican churches on Thursday evening this week. Many Protestant churches observe parts of that liturgy too, but the stripping of the altar, I would guess, is the most rare outside of catholic tradition, because protestant churches typically don’t fancy up their sanctuaries with lots of stuff, let alone refer to the altar as an altar. Anyway, that’s the background behind what I did here at home. I did not purge the desk with hyssop – it’s an antique that I’m borrowing, so I don’t want to do anything to mess it up! 😛