Friday, April 13, 2007

Holy Thursday

In Rome, Holy Thursday is the night for church-hopping. Every church, it seems, from Trastevere to Termini, is open until midnight for watching and adoration. The Romans like to see as many as they can in one night, although the traditional number is seven. One of my friends thought this sounded hurried, maybe even a little irreverent. But I leapt to their defense. How could I not? When I was little, one of the best days of the year was Holy Thursday, when the churches in our little corner of Silicon Valley stood open and shining in the dark, and we played truant on a school night visiting them all. Some churches made paths of lumenarias to guide you to their little Gethsemanes. Within, there would be altars of repose covered in lilies; incense lingering; patient candles. Whenever I read Christ's words at the Last Supper in St. John, I sink into the same quiet, the same warmth, the same candlelight compassed by miles of shadow. And I wonder: do the customs of Holy Thursday embody the Gospel so well, or is it that my childhood memories have associated the two things forever? I can't say.

Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

So I was really, really looking forward to Holy Thursday this year. Night couldn't come fast enough. In the evening, I went to Santa Maria dell' Orazione e Morte for a Tridentine Mass. The church is as POD as you could wish for: it belongs to a confraternity that buries the dead, and it has winged skulls on the facade. Inside, it is one of those smaller Roman churches that make themselves as impressive as possible in their alotted space by their oval shape. The whole ceiling was one eliptical dome, with the Holy Spirit hovering in the dim lantern. I could see right up into somone's apartment window though one of the lower windows. Everything was Baroque and wonderfully dramatic - the small balconies, the undulating choir loft, and the two little galleries above the sanctuary looked almost like theater boxes. A small choir sang sonorous polyphony for the Mass, and afterwards the priest carried the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose, processing slowly, so slowly that he seemed to be in a kind of reverent bullet-time, while servers swung censers and carried a golden ombrelino.

I prayed for a while and then went out onto the Via Giulia. There I met up with two other CC students and a student from Thomas More, and we took off for Trastevere. Joseph, the lone quixotic Trad of Thomas More, was telling us about Santa Maria dell' Orto and its fabled altar, and we never would have found it without him. We went along the dark bohemian allies of Trastevere, enjoying the sight of families out for a walk or a prayer, and into a silent street like any other - except for the open door with its flash of orange as you passed by. We went in and knelt. The whole church was dark except for the high altar, its terraces ablaze with upwards of two hundred candles. The crocus-gold light gleamed on the gilded adornments of the altar. I was in awe of the calm conflagration, and the way it reflected dimly in the marble aisle with a faint flush of rose and gold, and a tracery of fine, inky cracks. Santa Maria dell' Orto is open only a few times a year, and this was its hour to shine.

From there we went to St. Cecilia's, where the Benedictine nuns were keeping watch, and then to the Tiber Island, where St. Bartholomew is buried. There were young olive trees in the sanctuary, and candles among the trees and along the aisles. I thought as I looked at Bartholomew's porphyry casket that he had been among the olive trees on that Thursday night so many years ago. The silence of Holy Week swaddled us - that strange, innocent silence that lives in the candlight and in the pauses of the Easter Vigil: Christus heri - et hodie - that rare silence. It's like a precious vintage or an ancient phial of coronation chrism, something to be brought out only on great occasions: at Christmas, at the Triduum. And there was the warm smell of wax and the cool fragrance of flowers and night air, and the deep solemn smell of old wood and stone. But all of this was to try and soften that hard and bitter night that Christ spent under the olive trees, alone. How do you comfort a god who is about to die?

Christ let an angel console him, and now even we can do some service like that. Even after the blood that starred his face, suddenly, when he was overwhelmed by the horror of everything we had done and were going to do.

We made our pilgrimage, and we kept love's vigil. All in all, we visited seven churches - including San Francesco a Ripa and San Giovanni ai Fiorentini and others that I forget now (there was one by the Ara Pacis). We savored that bright night, for there would be no more light for the next two days.


The photo of the Holy Thursday Mass at Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte is from the New Liturgical Movement blog.

3 comments:

some guy on the street said...

O, but how I do miss Rome...

observer said...

The choir were all full-blooded Roman Catholics from Rome and directed by Dario Paolini.

Meredith said...

Wow, my bad. I was told otherwise. I will fix that...